Flora and fauna are a component that a country can boast of as being ‘indigenous and beneficial’ to any country. In Zambia the debate still rages as to who is benefiting from the highly prized God-given natural resources and chiefs in game-rich areas are now up in arms demanding action before their areas are exploited mostly by so-called foreign investors.CHARLES MUSONDA gives us an insight of this matter of national importance.
PERCHED on garden chairs under a tent at an incomplete lodge, the first of its kind in the newly-created Rufunsa district, some Lusaka Province chiefs ruminate on who is fully benefiting from wild animals, which they jealously guard. The chiefs are alleging that wild animals such as the rare sable antelope are being airlifted to neighbouring countries while big game such as elephants are poached for their ivory.
After having deliberated for more than two hours, the chiefs and other discussants are frighteningly disturbed by a small snake that has just dropped off a tree standing tall over the tent. Some delegates argue that the whitish slim serpent is harmless and its presence is a ‘blessing’ but others contend that it is deadly.
Within a flash, a member of the dance troupe hired to entertain the gathering whacks the snake on its head much to the relief of everyone, including Jes Works Lodge proprietor Jesper Nyirenda, who hosted the meeting as an interested party on the topic on wildlife and its beneficiaries in Zambia.
In 1999, Government took a decision to transform the former Department of National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) into an autonomous body, the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA).
ZAWA is governed by the Zambia Wildlife Act No. 12 of 1998 and has its own Board of Directors. The board is responsible for managing the Authority under the policy guidance of the now Ministry of Tourism and Arts.
But throughout its existence, ZAWA has been under fire over its perceived shortcomings like alleged underhand methods of awarding concessional hunting licences and failure to contain alarming poaching perpetrated by common villagers.
Early this year, Tourism and Arts Minister Sylvia Masebo fired then ZAWA director general Edwin Matokwani and four other senior officials for alleged corrupt practices in awarding safari hunting concessions.
Others were acting director of conservation Melody Zeko, acting commercial director Rose Chivumba, acting director of finance Andrew Sampa and head of procurement Taulino Banda.
However, despite the new board being in place, ZAWA continues to consistently face allegations of poor management of government trophy- failure to contain large-scale poaching and alleged irregularities in awarding hunting licences.
The current ZAWA board includes prominent farmer Guy Robinson, as chairperson, Tourism Permanent Secretary Charity Mwansa, Mrs Charlotte Scott (Vice-President Guy Scott’s wife) Ms Kasiya Kazembe from the Ministry of Finance, Mrs Anita Balletoi, Chieftainess Mwape of the Nsenga of Petauke district, Mr Younaso Mita, Mr Timothy Mushibwe and Senior Chief Inyambo Yeta of Sesheke district.
According to Chief Mpuka of Luangwa district, his intelligence sources have revealed that some tour operators are acting as conduits of large scale poaching in that they are allegedly conniving with foreign nationals to airlift animals from Zambia on the pretext of providing hospitality services.
Chief Mpuka told the meeting that frustrated village scouts are also turning to poaching because of non-payment of allowances by ZAWA.
“I don’t believe all animals are finished by local communities. The truth is that there are people from outside who have engaged Zambians to do the work for them while themselves are there seated because they know when a Zambian is caught by the government he or she will be punished.
“Actually the people who are encouraging poaching are the lodge owners along Zambezi River. You go there, you never know the planes that land there. We have the office of the chief officers who gather information for us from people. It is true…in my chiefdom I have a number of elephants that have killed people but I have never seen any of my Kunda people going to hunt elephants,” Chief Mpuka said.
He added that some ZAWA police officers are allegedly involved in poaching, hence their reluctance to intensify patrols in game parks.
His sentiments were supported by Chief Mburuma who echoed the fact that the same village scouts, who are supposed to protect animals from poachers, are turning into villains due to lack of resources, especially that at the moment there is no licenced hunting from which communities receive from ZAWA 50 percent of the income the authority earns from safari hunting.
“How can they concentrate on looking after animals when there is no money? They will just be looking after elephants but when these animals stray into neighbouring countries like Mozambique, they are killed and eaten there and people who have been looking after them here are left with nothing,” Chief Mburuma said.
“You can’t keep these animals like cattle in a kraal. They move freely and people benefiting are not those that have been looking after them.”
He said this is why many villagers shun being members of the Community Resource Boards (CRBs) on a voluntary basis.
Acting ZAWA Game Management Area manager Andrew Phiri conceded that there is high poaching in Luangwa and Rufunsa, saying the scourge needs immediate solutions.
On village scouts turning into poachers he said: “They have been demotivated and yet we want them to follow the trail of an animal that is worth a lot of money and many people are eyeing that animal so temptations are very high and some of them fail to resist temptations.”
He added that though CRBs are in place, there are no guidelines.
“We are reviewing the legislation process and that will take about one to two months to finalise it, and once we have done that we are going to dissolve all CRBs so that we put in place legal structures so that money doesn’t end at CRBs. This money is not going down to the VAGs (village action groups),” Mr Phiri said.
And in an interview with the Sunday Mail, ZAWA representative and grassroot member Rolf Shenton says the primary goal is to put in place the legal structure for communities to manage their own decision-making over natural resources, which includes forestry, fisheries and trees in the communities.
“There is no need to put the blame on any one individual. We all need to unite and the people have accepted very well, where possible we have listened to the complaints specifically issues like hunting,” he said.
On allegations of some lodge owners conniving with outsiders to conduct large-scale poaching he says: “That is a legal issue, ZAWA is here and if it is a matter of crossing borders, it becomes a national security…that is illegal and we don’t tolerate illegality in this country as far as I remember.
“The area warden or ranger should investigate these issues…so that it can be resolved very quickly as to whether the story is true or false. If they are doing it they have to be stopped. That is a clear illegality and if it’s going on it has to be stopped immediately,” Mr Shenton said.
And in his observation, Rufunsa district commissioner Paul Kasongo said looking at the chiefs’ concerns, there is a vacuum between ZAWA and the traditional setup.
“People are busy killing animals and ZAWA is nowhere to be seen and when money comes from safari hunters it goes straight into ZAWA’s hands who are not even on the ground and then these people are given tokens. I think it is unfair, let us see who is on the ground and make sure that we correct the situation.
“If you ask the chiefs how many elephants are hunted down by safari hunters and how much money comes in, they may not even explain how many elephants have been killed and in the end they will receive a token and say this is enough and the community remains suffering. There must be a direct link,” Mr Kasongo said.
After pondering the hot debate, the clear issue is that ZAWA needs to put its house in order at all levels for Zambia’s flora and fauna to be conserved for the benefit of future generations.