In Zimbabwe, Hope for Rhinos Takes a Village – OZY

The CRCI represents a milestone for conservation in Zimbabwe because it’s the first attempt to house rhinos on community land in the country, says Bruce Clegg, a senior ecologist with the Malilangwe Trust who is also a member of Zimbabwe’s National Rhino Committee (part of ZimParksthe country’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority).

“If successful, the project may act as a catalyst for similar initiatives and, in so doing, help to foster an improved relationship between people and wildlife,” Clegg says.

“Africa is littered with failed community wildlife projects because they have been forced down a community’s throats and later rejected,” says Zimbabwean Mark Butcher, a former national parks ranger and managing director of Imvelo Safari Lodgesa key partner in the initiative.

He remembers when white rhinos roamed free in the Hwange’s southern grassy lands, and when the last one was poached away from it too (there are still a handful of black rhinos in the park’s remote reaches northern, Butcher says, but they are rarely seen) . And he’s dreamed of seeing white rhinos back in Hwange since.

But while conserving and preserving for future generations is a “wonderful concept,” Butcher says, it’s one that is a luxury to many people in Africa who are starving or just trying to find the money to pay school fees for their children’s education. “Particularly people living around the parks in Africa can’t afford that luxury [of a Western mindset toward conservation],” he says.

But Butcher is convinced the way to turn communities into conservationists is straightforward.

“It’s about creating jobs and socioeconomic developments so the cost of poaching is higher than the cost of protection,” he says.

To that end, the CRCI spent the pandemic training roughly 30 men from the local villages to be scouts. They are the brown and brains behind the Cobras Community Wildlife Protection Unit (called the COBRAS). The unit not only closely guards Thusa and Kusasa around the clock on foot patrols and from observation towers, but is also on call to help people from nearby villages address problem animals — such as elephants trampling a crop of watermelons or lions menacing a farmer’s cattle. Female villagers are being recruited to the CRCI to work on intelligence and surveillance efforts related to anti-poaching too.

“People don’t have bank accounts here, they have cattle,” Butcher says. And using communal land as a guarded wildlife sanctuary also serves as a buffer between the people living in the villages and the wild animals living in the national park that often menace them and their livelihoods.

Funds raised from tourists visiting the CRCI — where it’s possible to enter the land inside the sanctuary’s electrified gates to walk alongside the rhinos while listening to the stories of the COBRAS, some of whom were former poachers themselves — go directly toward community improvements to schools, boreholes and healthcare facilities. Visitors currently pay a $180 optional fee to walk with the rhinos, but next year a $100 per person rhino conservation fee will be applied to all guests at Imvelo’s four safari lodges. The revenue raised is already being used to fund operating expenses and nurses salaries at a new clinic in nearby Ngamo, in addition to supporting the rhino cause.

For 26-year-old COBRA Wisdom Mdlongwa, the rewards of helping protect these animals — that he is also seeing for the first time in his life here in his home region — are already becoming clear. The COBRAS are celebrated as local heroes in their home villages, where kids play COBRAS in the sandy streets in the same way others around the world might play cops and robbers.

“I didn’t grow up seeing rhino,” Mdlongwa says. “But now, in addition to tourists, local people also get the chance to come here and see them.” And witnessing the impact on the local schoolchildren who visit the COBRAS and CRCI to see the rhinos has given him hope that in the future the village’s younger children will want to earn their livelihoods and provide for their families working to protect the animals.

“Once we have money from this project, it helps support our community in many ways,” he says.