THE Hwange National Park covers 14 600 square kilometres, being the biggest national park in Zimbabwe sharing boundaries with communal areas in Matabeleland North province in Tsholotsho, Hwange and Lupane Districts.
The communities stated also practice subsistence farming including tilling land, and growing of various crops for family consumption. Despite good rains in other years, the Kalahari sandy soils which are heavily leached and have a poor water holding capacity have betrayed communal farmers in their crop growing effort as they sometimes only managed to harvest enough to keep body and soul together for their families and this has been worsened by the herbivorous wild animals which invade the farmers’ fields from the neighboring park for their ‘seasonal share’ of more succulent plants, that is, field crops.
It is quite clear that such communities which are prone to poor crop harvest due to poor soils worsened by wild animals invading their fields, have challenges in understanding any issues being addressed pertaining to wildlife conservation found in the neighboring national park.
Such communities will always prefer anything which has to do with ‘Consumptive Conservation’, for example killing of a problematic elephant or buffalo which has been found destroying crops in the field. In this case, the community members will realise the immediate social benefit of wildlife.
It is unfortunate that such a benefit is erratic, and in most cases it comes as a ‘surprise gift of the year’ as it depends on unpredictable behaviors of wild animals. It’s good that different research organisations operating within and around this national park have tried to assist such communities through self-help projects. Among those, some failed due to poor characteristics of the soil. They had mostly embarked on community gardening, or field crop growing projects.
Despite consented efforts by both communal farmers, and project promoters, such soils have become a cog in the machine in trying to address issues related to human being survival in areas prone to human and wildlife conflict through self-help projects.
To anyone who is good in analysing the productivity of soils, especially the Kalahari sandy soils- questions like how come traditional vegetables like the spider flower-ulude/nyeve or runi, bush okra- idelele/ derere , African spinach- imbuya/mowa, pumpkin leaves – ibhobola /muboora perform very well in such soils when they are not even cultivated as the main crops?
Traditional vegetables, especially the spider flower, wild okra and African spinach normally emerge as volunteer plants, their seeds sometimes come as part of manure which is spread in the fields for growing the main intended crop like maize.
Despite their good performance in such poor soils, less attention has been paid in terms of maximizing their production for the benefit of communities in Kalahari sand dominated places.
Through experience, it is good that some people from the Tsholotsho area, that is, Ngamo and Ziga communities and some from the Hwange area, that is, Ndlovu, Dopota and Mabale areas have explored lucrative businesses by selling most of these seasonal vegetables in neighboring cities and towns like Dete, Bulawayo, Victoria Falls and Hwange. They have taken advantage of good performance of such plants despite the adverse conditions like heavy leaching of Kalahari soils, and erratic rains in their respective places.
Having spent some years growing different crops in these Kalahari sandy soils, it’s good some farmer’s experiences have supported some crop growing researches. One community member from Sizinda- an area in Hwange District dominated by Kalahari Soils, Mr Njabulo Moyo, said, “Despite Kalahari sand soil’s poor performance in trying to grow crops like maize-field crops like water or sweet melons, millet, sorghum, cowpeas, groundnuts and round nuts perform very well, but, promotion of their production is limited. I wish sponsors in our area could pay attention to this.’’
Due to their nitrogen fixing properties, some crops like groundnuts, round nuts and cow peas always perform well in Kalahari sandy soils despite their leaching characteristic, and growth of drought tolerant crops, like sorghum and millet has to be promoted since the soils are characterized by poor water holding capacity.
Crops need main nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium and minor nutrients like zinc, magnesium for normal growth and these are easily lost through the leaching process in the Kalahari sandy soils. These can be obtained through application factory or organic fertilisers.
Environmentally friendly ways of improving soils have been adopted by communities around Hwange National Park, some adopting the cattle kraals rotation program- makeshift kraals are rotated in the fields when they are not in use.
The programme has yielded better results since urine and dung deposited during this kraal rotation process improves soil fertility, structure and texture.
One beneficiary of the programme, Mr. Mathew Mathe also from Sizinda said, “Rotating kraals is very beneficial, and it is an environmental friendly way of improving our heavily leached Kalahari sandy soils.
For the best results, 20 herd of cattle should be kept in a makeshift kraal measuring 15 meters by 15 meters for seven days.
From there, the kraal is shifted to another place in the field. Soil fertility can last for four or five years, but in those years the farmer should continue treating the soil for best results.
It is important that different wildlife conservation organisations seeking to address issues in communities dominated by Kalahari sandy soil to consider those crops which easily adapt to the environment, for example, growth of traditional vegetables, and drought tolerant crops like sorghum and millet.
Introduction of more adaptive self-help projects to communities neighboring national parks is a stepping stone towards conservation of wildlife and natural resources – self projects should not be a square peg on a round hole if the best results are to be achieved.
* Mahlabezulu Zulu is a conservationist who has worked for various wildlife research, and conservation organizations in Hwange National Parks, and Fuller Forestry in Victoria Falls.