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Killing animals underlies Zimbabwe’s hope for saving species and helping people; it seems to be working

Three years ago, John Tendengdende, headman of Dete village in Zimbabwe, watched helplessly as his maize seedlings, cotton plants and chili bushes shriveled and died during the country’s worst drought in living memory. Tens of thousands of other subsistence farmers in the Zambezi River valley lost their crops. At the bleakest moment, Tendengdende and his people stood on the threshold of starvation, all maize stocks gone, and the future hinging on whether enough rain would fall to nurture the next crop.

Then an innovative wildlife conservation program gave the villagers a lifesaving windfall. “For the first time we got money for our wild animals,” explains Tendengdende. “I used my money to buy 50 kilograms (110 lbs.) of corn meal. That’s how we survived.”

The program that helped to save the Dete villagers is the Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE). Not only does it add a new dimension to wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe by helping to make wildlife valuable to local people, but it also offers a management model that other nations are examining closely.

Under CAMPFIRE, the government has transferred ownership of wildlife on communal lands to the communities, which sell hunting or photographic concessions to safari companies. The money goes directly to the communities, whose members decide how it will be spent. Zimbabwe’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management sets the hunting quotas and trophy fees in each communal area, while local authorities, with support from the department, bear responsibility for wildlife protection and management.

Wildlife is perhaps the greatest treasure of the Zambezi River valley, a 900-kilometer (560-mi.) swath of acacia thornbush that stretches across Zimbabwe from Victoria Falls in the northwestern corner of the nation to the border with Mozambique in the east. The valley covers some of south-central Africa’s most remote and rugged landscape and produces large herds of elephants, buffalo and antelope as well as populations of lions, leopards and other wildlife. Consequently, about half of the valley’s 56,230 square kilometers (21,710 sq.mi.) have been set aside in national parks, reserves and forests to protect wildlife.

The other half is divided into tribal communal lands, where some 325,000 people subsist on crops of maize, cotton and a few vegetables. The thin, gray topsoil, rocky terrain and inadequate rainfall make for uncertain crops, but about 20 percent of the communal lands also produce significant amounts of wildlife.

Ironically, the people of Dete and other villages in northern Zimbabwe’s Hurungwe District did not value the animals until the drought ravaged their crops and threatened them with destitution. Then, the influx of funds from CAMPFIRE, which they had recently joined, showed the villagers that their wildlife could be vitally important to them.

The program also is important to wildlife conservation. Many communal holdings border national parks, state forests and reserves, which cover 14.5 percent of the country. For years, people have settled illegally on protected lands. Poaching has been a persistent problem as people killed wildlife to supplement income or to provide food for the pot.

But thanks to CAMPFIRE, a new era is dawning in the Zambezi valley. The $13 that each of the 574 heads of household in his village received in the year of the drought has changed local attitudes toward wildlife, says Arius Chipere, a member of a village wildlife committee. “Ten years ago, we liked the animals, of course,” he explains. “But now we like them more because we are getting money for them.”

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