No man's land

sangoranch_mainFollowing a Royal Agricultural University placement in Zimbabwe, student Tristan B. Breijer considers the important role that trophy hunting plays in Mugabe's Africa.

Jorrum Mlambo was a brave hunter and an outstanding tracker. So reads a solemn brass plaque nailed to a baobab tree far out in the bush. One day when Jorrum was out tracking a wounded animal, he unexpectedly came face to face with an elephant bull which cost him his life. The huge bull used its vast bulk to run him down and trample him. His death was instant.

sangoranch_5The reality of living alongside game is very different to what many suppose. Hunting has become a favorite media demon, held up as an abhorrent activity practiced only by a barbaric few. And much has been said about the death of the lion some called 'Cecil'. But rather than toss my two cents onto the vast pile collecting at the feet of the vilified dentist, I will quite simply write about hunting as I found it in the Savé Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe.

sangoranch_1As a student of the Royal Agricultural University, I was kindly invited to undertake an internship on the Sango Ranch, part of the Savé Valley Conservancy. It was bought in the early 1990s by German businessman Willy Pabst, and converted from a floundering cattle ranch into a successful wildlife reserve. Through sustainable hunting and sound management, the fledgling populations of local wildlife soared to a thriving abundance. 

My job at the conservancy was to assist in a lion and leopard research survey. For the ecologist, a survey is the quantifying of nature: an analysis of population trends. For the businessman it is simple and vital stocktaking: next season's quota. It is at this intersection between ecology and business that you find sustainable hunting. A careful weighing of the ecological and financial factors in order to determine when, which and how many trophies can and should be harvested. 

For estates in Zimbabwe, and around the globe, this financial consideration is crucial. Without sufficient income, these vast reserves that conserve the country's wildlife would cease to operate, the animals would be poached, culled and killed, and the land would subside into desolation, as has been the case for far too many farms across this once great country.

sangoranch_3At Sango, lions are one of the main species becoming a big problem for this land of plenty. It is a testament to the successful management of the estate but, as in all game and wildlife management, the goal is balance, as imbalance will trickle down the ecosystem to affect everything else in unexpected and often disastrous ways.

The survey is an arduous job. We would rise before the African dawn to hunt zebra or wildebeest. The beasts were quartered and hung as bait from an observable tree. We would create scent trails from the road to the tree using the entrails and leave all this to waft over the estate until dusk.

Lions rule the night in Africa, and they know it. They are much bolder at night and far less wary of humans. Many nights of peaceful rest were interrupted by roaring coming not a great distance away from the bedroom window in the student guesthouse. Our presence was no deterrent for them at night.

sangoranch_2Due to this nocturnal nature, the actual survey would begin at dusk. We would set out and park 20m away from the bait. Using large speakers mounted on the roof of the customised Land Cruiser, we would serenade the lions with recordings of dying warthogs or wildebeest. When the lions stealthily stalked into view, we would count and observe them whilst they feasted on this unexpected treat. Together with an extensive aerial survey to give an overall perspective of the population as well as simpler spoor or track surveys, a fairly accurate picture of the status quo is established which is then used by the National Parks department to generate quotas.

In the past, Sango Ranch was involved in game capture and relocation, supplying many of the depleted national parks in the region with their surplus of impala and kudu. Together with hunting, this was an effective way of maintaining balance. Unfortunately, the economic situation and regional politics have meant that demand has dried up and there are few who seek to increase their game stocks, leaving many estates in the region, like Sango, with an unsustainable population of game. When public opinion demands you save every animal, but by not controlling them, you will risk inflicting starvation and disease on an overpopulated area - what is one to do? 

sangoranch_4Economically and culturally, hunting is the most profitable use for this type of marginal land. The combination of a corrupt and failing national park system in Mugabe's Africa, the absence of tourism and official reluctance to accept foreign investment, together with the local and official lack of interest in wildlife conservation when people are struggling to survive, make these private operations a vital part of saving Africa's natural heritage.

Most of the ranches which make up the conservancy would have gone bankrupt if it had not been for the income which trophy hunting provides, and without which the conservancy would not be able to exist.

Contrary to the widespread opinion much espoused in recent times, trophy hunting is far less traumatic for animals than is the cruel and indiscriminate system they naturally live under. Predation and weather are little concerned with humane killing. 

David Goosen, born and raised in Zimbabwe, has been the general manager of Sango since 1997 and has lived through many different conditions. "If you witness a drought in the lowveld," he says, "and the many thousands of animals that die as a consequence, you would understand that trophy hunting is a far better way of removing animals than letting them starve to death." The ecological system is inhumane and nature corrects the surplus of animals by means of a destructive and wanton crash, as opposed to a controlled, sustainable number of animals with a cushion of feed for the lean times. 

About 25 per cent of Sango is set aside as a no-hunting area to create a reservoir of animals which can flourish naturally without any pressure. From a trophy hunting standpoint, this is also a great consideration as it allows animals to breed and develop with no interference and it is a way of creating a bank of trophies that will sooner or later travel into hunting areas.

sangoranch_8Despite the travails, when the regime changes, the future looks bright for Sango. It is hoped to increase the quality of the hunt whilst decreasing the quantity over time: a shorter period of hunting whilst still culling the necessary volume to bring in trophy income and stabilise the population. 

The wider conservancy area has seen many changes over the last century. It was once part of the 75,000-acre Devuli Ranch, a cattle farm founded in 1923. In the ensuing years, amidst bouts of success and years of drought, famine and war, the land was heavily altered and local wildlife populations were ousted to make room for domestic cattle. In the early '90s, when beef prices were at a disastrous low, a well-known European accountancy agency was brought in to undertake a study of the best use per hectare of this wild land.

Compared to domesticated livestock, a diverse wildlife population will eat from below  the ground to the tops of the trees, which is much less impactful on the environment and sustains a far richer biodiversity, which, in turn, increases the land's potential to generate revenue.

A number of propitious elements combined to aid the creation of this reserve. Whilst the ranch was being converted, a war was raging in the Zambezi valley on the border with Zambia - a war on poachers. Huge numbers of rhinos were being poached by gangs of people crossing the border and retreating as swiftly as they came. The Zimbabwe National Army, together with National Parks, were occupied in regular shootouts with gangs of these poachers, and the Savé Valley was a safe-haven to receive these animals.

sangoranch_6With rhino horn fetching an incredible £42,150 per kg, and with poverty rife in the land, it is not surprising that for some this price makes it worth risking their lives. Supported by various foundations and charities as one of the last strongholds of white and black rhino, the Savé Valley is a major target for poachers. Regular attacks keep the strong protection force on their toes.

When restocking began, it was very fortunate that meticulous records had been kept of the wildlife present on the ranch in years gone by. Through a huge restocking programme, including the largest translocation of elephants in history - around 600 live animals- as well as the natural reappearance of many species like lion, leopard and hyena, which migrated in response to available food, Savé Valley became a resounding wildlife success story. 

However, this process sadly ground to a halt in about 2000, at the introduction of President Mugabe's controversial Land Reform Act. For a number of years the government's policy was to indigenize the farms and purchase them from white Zimbabweans or foreign owners. But under this new act it became a forcible operation, often involving much violence and intimidation. No land in Zimbabwe has remained unaffected.

Things were no different for Sango Ranch. The southern part of the estate was invaded. On the site of the current lodge, 800 people appeared from the local villages who had come for the land the government had told them was theirs. Their subsequent efforts to cultivate this wild and dry land failed dismally, and in need of sustenance, they turned their attention to the wildlife, killing huge numbers over the coming weeks and months.

After three months, these uninvited guests reluctantly left, leaving large numbers of animal carcasses in their wake. A major cyclone had temporarily saturated the ground and given the illusion of fertility, but this land is simply not suitable for farming and the requisite infrastructure did not exist. The situation was partially ameliorated due to a sound bi-lateral agreement with the German government (for this was a German-owned ranch), and through strong intervention on the part of the embassy. Most other ranches were not so lucky. Many landowners are still forced to surrender large parts of their land to 'veterans' and the politically connected. The majority stake in any venture has to be owned by a native Zimbabwean. 

sangoranch_7The consequence of making all farmland common land is that it becomes no man's land. When a capricious government can claim and appropriate land on a whim, there is little incentive to invest. And, regrettably, subsistence farming does not provide enough resources to sustain the population. Where once Zimbabwe supplied and fed many of the other nations in Southern Africa, and it's export trade was voluminous, Zimbabwe's people now rely on foreign aid to survive.

As we drove the five hours from the Savé Valley to the capital of Harare, I gazed out at the forlorn and despondent lands extending out from the capital. Here the farms were redistributed to Mugabe's closest personal allies, few of whom had farm experience and many of whom simply sold the equipment to gain a quick return. They abandoned the land to lie fallow, waiting, like many in the country, for the passing of a 92-year-old dictator. 

The seeds of hope are already germinating, ready to sprout. 

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