Science lab helps fight human- wildlife conflict in the region Rangers from VFWT attend to an elephant trapped by a wire snare

Leonard Ncube, [email protected]

THE veterinary laboratory operated by the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust (VFWT) in the tourism city is a key facility in the fight against human-wildlife conflict.

Victoria Falls is a wildlife area located within the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area which cuts across five countries namely Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The VFWT carries out its operations in and around the Victoria Falls National Park, Chamabondo National Park and Zambezi National Park, which are near Victoria Falls City.

Poaching is very common near these game parks with people from nearby communities mostly using wire snares to trap animals for bush meat.

In isolated cases, the illegal hunters have used cyanide poison, a trend that was popular in 2013 when poachers killed hundreds of elephants on the Tsholotsho side of the Hwange National Park.

The VFWT’s main role is to rescue trapped animals and those orphaned by poaching activities and rehabilitate them.

“We rescue animals. Poachers target adult animals and leave young ones orphaned which we then take care of before a soft and slow release back to the bush,” said Mr Roger Perry, the organisation’s wildlife and research manager.

He was speaking during a tour of the wildlife centre and laboratory recently.

Because of the treatment given to injured or orphaned animals at the centre, some of them, like porcupines, return but they don’t cage them so that they get used to jungle life.

The researchers sometimes put tracking devices on some of the animals to monitor them as a human-wildlife conflict mitigatory measure and also for research purposes. This is also done to see how they adjust to the wild.

The lab helps in reducing conflict as it is through it that the VFWT, working with other organisations, has managed to come up with the boma and vuvuzela concept to prevent lions from killing livestock in pens and the chilly concept to stop elephants from straying into fields and homesteads.

The predator proof bomas have a two-metre high canvas tent which prevents lions from seeing what’s inside because the big cats are visual hunters.

Mr Perry said since 2017 when the bomas were introduced in communities outside Victoria Falls, no single cow has been killed.

“We do community outreach and as a trust we decided to act. In 2017 we came up with the community gardens concept and vuvuzelas for mitigation against lions and elephants. Lions are used to a peaceful environment, so vuvuzelas are working and the community is very happy about the programme.

“We have also created a virtual boundary whereby collared animals are monitored and when they cross into the community we alert them. When blowing vuvuzelas, community members maintain a safe distance for safety and so there is no danger at all,” said Mr Perry.

He said each boma can take up to 500 cattle at any given time.

Villagers come together and put the boma in a field for two weeks before moving to another field.

The cattle leave cow dung and urine which fertilises the soil hence boosting crop production.

The boma concept not only chases away lions but fertilises the land.

In other countries, communities build platforms to guard livestock.

The VFWT has also come up with the pepper ping pong balls concept whose idea is not to injure elephants but to scare them away through a cloud of chilli concentrate that is shot towards the jumbos when they stray into human settlements.

All these concepts are administered from the laboratory with the VFWT working in partnership with a number of organisations such as WildCru.

Community guides are trained to use guns and visit the hotspots.

The laboratory is the biggest in the Kaza region and helps fight poaching as security agencies depend on findings from the laboratory to build cases against poachers in court.

The lab also carries tests on carcasses and helps determine the type of animal poached and how long it has been dead for as well as carry research on wildlife diseases.

“The veterinary laboratory carries out tests, helps police and Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in their investigations and law enforcement. It is the largest in the Kaza region. We have a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kaza region,” said Mr Perry.

Kaza has 35 wildlife areas and all member states are committed to conservation, law enforcement and sustainable management of the massive wildlife resource, co-ordinated approach and facilitating cross-border tourism.

The VFWT conducts conservation education sessions whereby learners from schools in surrounding rural areas visit the centre and lab on Fridays to learn.

The programme is a partnership with Wild Horizons and other organisations such as Connected Conservation.

Close to 700 learners are taught each year and they form conservation ecological clubs with a goal to advance and promote environmental conservation in Southern Africa.

Mr Perry said tourism is one of the biggest generators of foreign currency hence the need to develop a positive value chain.

“It is easy to teach a child than an adult, so we want to raise a generation with ecological knowledge. We have an incredible national asset in this region but is affected by climate change and so we want the community to directly benefit from the natural resources and value chains so they can supply products to the tourism industry. We want to establish a value chain so that local communities directly benefit from tourism and see wildlife as an asset. We are hoping the children we train here will work as guides, anti-poaching units and other conservation jobs,” he said.

The VFWT faces funding challenges and the overarching challenge of getting people to change their mindset and be positive about the environment.

This is evidenced by the prevalence of wildlife and wood poaching.

The VFWT therefore, came up with the rocket stoves which use 70 percent less fuel than an open fire. About 4 300 rocket stoves have been distributed free of charge to the Victoria Falls community.

Mr Perry said the community had embraced the concept and there is less pressure on the environment where previously, two tonnes of trees were cut down for firewood at each given time in Victoria Falls.

We Are Victoria Falls co-ordinator Ms Shelly Cox commended efforts being made in environmental conservation.

“It’s a human-wildlife conflict mitigation tool and people will eventually stop invading the bush for firewood. From a health perspective, it means people breathe less smoke when they use rocket stoves while women and girls’ health is protected as they do most of the cooking,” she said.

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