The Campfire project – Zimbabwe’s interaction with wildlife

As debate still simmers about the Australian government banning the importation of lion trophies, it is worth taking a look at how things have progressed with wildlife management under Operation Campfire in Zimbabwe.

Campfire stands for ‘Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources’ and has been set out to nurture rural development and conservation. It links with the people who live in communal lands, bolstering the use of wildlife as a vital natural resource. Campfire is assisting inhabitants to evaluate the environment in ways which are both feasible and fitting.

The origins of Campfire evolved mainly from the idea of fostering wildlife and wildlife habitat for the well-being of the people. The seeds of the project can be traced to the 1960s when guidelines to commercialise wildlife production were initiated.

In those days, wildlife was legally deemed to be owned by the State, which rarely granted licences for commercial use. Following on from this, in disputes with farmers, wild animals were viewed as pests. Wildlife was also under threat from continual moulding of its traditional retreats into agricultural pastures.

Basically, the prospects of large wildlife masses outside demarcated conservation areas looked bleak. Even before this, there were trying times. Under British colonial rule the indigenous inhabitants of Zimbabwe were banned from hunting. And yet, hunting game had been an ingrained part of their culture, as well as being an important food source.

Due to the conservation regulations of that era, animal populations in certain zones soared and as they did so, their search for sustenance brought them into closer contact with humans. This, in turn, saw the decimation of human food crops, farmland and property, and in isolated instances, even caused deaths. Events fuelled the number of illegal poachers, who even gained a degree of empathy with some residents who were simply attempting to feed their families, but virtually put their lives on the line every time they were forced to outflank any armed game wardens.

Following independence from Britain, at long last Zimbabwe had more control over its future. Starting in the mid-1980s, the doctrine of Operation Campfire was formally introduced. Among other developments, this meant that villages had permission to cull a percentage of certain wildlife species to deliver a meat supply. Some groups tried a system where local butchers were able to sell the meat for a set amount and any profits would be pooled out among the villagers.

However, as the practice progressed, it became apparent that game licences could be sold to tourists, which added to the cash windfall. These gains could then be transferred into local schemes supported by the villagers. At the start, a tourism offshoot was spawned, centred on hunting safaris. Putting hunting licences up for grabs cuts illegal incursions from potential poachers and hands the villagers much-needed foreign cash. Hunters from abroad who come to Zimbabwe pay large fees to hunt elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, lions, kudus and other wild animals. More than 60 per cent of profits from Campfire are derived from elephant hunts.

The whole Campfire project has been taken to a new level so that it attracts ‘non-combative’ tourists, which means visitors who simply wish to photograph the animals – not shoot them. This development has created a tourist sideline that has expanded around safaris for snappers. Locals have gained another bonus as food from the land has been boosted with the introduction of electric fences to protect crops funded by the Campfire kitty. This, in turn, eases any friction with animals, as less-than-desirable acres are not brought into the crop cycle.

The scheme represents a feasible model of enduring tourism as the wildlife numbers are engineered to the gain of the population as it stands, but careful planning also conserves the status quo for times to come. In the process, poaching has been cut as the locals enjoy an increase in food supplies and take a lead role in conserving the native animals.

Profits have been reinvested into many local connections such as schools, hospitals and road building. The cash also helps to provide electricity and clean water. In one case, funds have been utilised to revamp a reservoir that results in a better water supply, and through restocking, a precious food commodity – namely, fish. The people say that they are re-evaluating some of their former heritage as they are reacquainted with immersion into the natural order of the wildlife cycle.

Operation Campfire is taught in schools to demonstrate the crucial factors of wildlife and wildlife protection. Since 1989, more than 250,000 Zimbabweans have been involved in Campfire projects. Each village included in the Campfire program (now covering 26 districts) has a wildlife committee dedicated to counting animals, anti-poaching measures and environmental education. Game scouts are employed to help stop poaching and manage wildlife. Leading on from this, the scheme creates jobs with locals trained to become environmental educators, game scouts and related personnel.

Campfire has succeeded in reviving previous migratory paths that had been made seemingly obsolete by game parks. This has heralded a proliferation of varying species and enabled the good work of Operation Campfire to mushroom across multiple tracts of Zimbabwe.

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