The Importance of Elephant Hunting to CAMPFIRE and CAMPFIRE to Elephants: A Case of the Mahenye Community in Zimbabwe

This report was created by one of the CAMPFIRE areas with people and elephant being jeopardized by hold on elephant trophy imports.

The initiation of the Community Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) in Zimbabwe has brought with it a number of positive contributions to the lives of people, and in turn improved the management of wildlife in Communal areas, especially elephants from which people directly benefit the most through trophy hunting. This short article focuses on the importance of people to elephants, and the benefits of elephants to people as a case study of the Mahenye community in Zimbabwe that protects wildlife on 94km2. It is a known fact that elephants contribute to massive destruction of biodiversity when populations reach a certain threshold, as is the case for Gonarezhou National Park that borders the Mahenye community of about 951 households.  In the absence of culling and practical limitations to capture and translocation as management options, controlled hunting outside protected areas is a useful management tool. In this discussion, direct and indirect benefits of elephants to people and people to elephants are of equal weight.

Zimbabwe’s rural communities have realized many benefits, direct and indirect, since CAMPFIRE was initiated in the early 1980s. People living with wildlife especially in communal areas receive revenues when safari operators/outfitters undertake trophy hunting in their areas. The money paid is used as “community dividends” for community projects and has been a catalyst to community led infrastructure development in these areas. A case in point is the Mahenye hunting revenues that have been used for the electrification of the Mahenye Rural Business Centre, building of schools (where students were taking lessons under trees), and purchase of two electric corn grinding mills (where people used to travel more than fifty kilometers for the service), a lorry and tractor.

Elephant hunting in Mahenye is the main reason behind the sustainability of the CAMPFIRE Programme.  It has greatly contributed to the creation of employment for the locals. The recent elephant trophy import ban that took effect in 2014 has greatly affected the locals as the CAMPFIRE Project had to retrench workers in order to cope with the reduction in revenue.

Table 1: Mahenye Source market of clients for elephant and income generated as per TRAs2 (US$)

As can be seen in Table 1 above, there was a sharp drop (80%) in the number of clients from America after 2013 and immediately following the announcement of the suspension of elephant trophy imports. Even though there was an increase in hunter arrivals from Europe in 2015, this did not translate into increased income as the Mahenye Safari Operator, like many others in Zimbabwe, had to sell elephant hunts at heavily discount prices, i.e. 5 North America clients paid $132, 789 in 2013, compared to 4 European clients paying only $76, 806 in 2015 for the elephant hunted. As a result of this slump in income, the Mahenye CAMPFIRE Project had to retrench six out of the fifteen workers that it employed before the suspension. Some of the retrenched workers included resource monitors, who play a central and critical role in the conservation of wildlife resources in the area, hence leaving elephants and other animal species vulnerable to poaching.

Hopes were raised by the 2017 announcement that the elephant import suspension had been lifted, and plans made by the Mahenye community to increase its workforce so that resource monitors could cover the whole hunting area. Despite the ‘hold’ on imports announced immediately after, the Mahenye community has remained determined in their support for conservation and community development. The community has recently purchased a trailer and a three-disc moldboard plough that is now being hired by locals, hence improving CAMPFIRE revenues. Not only that, in 2018 the Mahenye CAMPFIRE project commenced the building of two pre-school and two classroom blocks for Grades 1 and 2 pupils, whose completion is pending.

The Mahenye Community views elephant hunting as their only way of getting a share of compensation due to high levels of human and wildlife conflict. In Mahenye, from 2013 to present, 3 people have been killed and 3 injured from elephant attacks. Benefits from the hunting have ensured continued support for elephant conservation, as the community remains focused on improving infrastructural development in their area. When an elephant is killed during a hunt or as part of Problem Animal Control (PAC), the meat is shared amongst community, hence improving their diet. Unknown by many people, elephant dung is used as a mosquito repellant and has helped in reducing cases of malaria and deaths in areas like Mahenye where the disease is endemic. Elephant dung is burnt slowly inside and outside houses, and the smoke effectively repels mosquitoes. As is the case in other CAMPFIRE areas, elephant dung is also processed to make biodegradable paper that is sold to industries and contributes to a clean environment. As a traditional practice, elephant dung is also used by pregnant women to improve the birth canal towards delivery.  These are just examples, as it is difficult to fully illustrate the value of the elephant to lives of the people, in this case the Shangan (Tsonga) of Mahenye.

The history of elephant conservation in Mahenye has been written by many from the early years of initiation of the CAMPFIRE Programme, and the fact still remains that the Shangan people are known conservationists who live harmoniously with wildlife. Elephants actually prefer to live close to people’s settlements, as evidenced in Mahenye. For good reason, elephants have been known to avoid crossing to the Mozambican side where there has been massive poaching from the past. It would seem that the elephants choose to live around the Mahenye community and near people’s settlements because they know that the people will look after them, instead of killing or disturbing them.  This fact is also known to the Gonarezhou National Park rangers who protect the park. The Mahenye people have therefore from time immemorial been the first line defence for the elephant against poachers. In all cases of poaching in their area, local people make reports and cooperate during investigations as they clearly are against individuals who try to illegally benefit from what belongs to the whole community alone.

As can be seen from the above, the Mahenye people are conservationists, and they protect the wildlife habitat. People have also become an effective alert system in cases of fire outbreaks in wildlife areas. When local people see a wild fire, they organize themselves and put it out. In cases where they fail to control a fire, they report to the CAMPFIRE office and the traditional leadership, who help in mobilizing full help from the community. It is in this sense that the people have contributed immensely to the continued existence and survival of the wildlife habitat in the area, leading to stable and growing numbers of elephant and other wildlife.

This story highlights how elephants can assist in improving the lives of people that bear the big brunt of losses from thriving populations of wildlife in their areas. Communities have therefore suffered a lot from the 2014 elephant import suspension or ban by the United States of America and the continued uncertainty over future imports. In the absence of an acceptable compensation model in the world for victims of elephant attacks, the Mahenye community firmly believes in elephant hunting as the only way of compensation for injuries, death and crop losses. On the other hand, people assist elephants in their protection, and this ensures the interdependence of people and elephants. It then follows that an elephant needs people to survive, as much as people need elephants to survive. As such, any banning of elephant hunting translates to cutting this interdependence chain, as evidenced in Mahenye in previous years when poaching was high before the attitudes of the people changed following the introduction of CAMPFIRE.  The anti-hunting lobby that thrives on unsubstantiated claims of lack of benefits from hunting mainly through social media will only serve to escalate community dissatisfaction with wildlife management. 

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