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Africa Geographic
Wildlife . People . Travel
Photographer of the Year 2021

Written by: Dr Sam Williams

Before the year 2000, wildlife in Zimbabwe was thriving, in part due to the role played by private landowners such as commercial farmers. Private land was home to important populations of endangered species, including 80% of Zimbabwe’s cheetahs. Zimbabwe was held up as a model for how land can be effectively managed for the benefit of both animals and people, and other countries soon adopted their policies and replicated their success.

But a fast-track land reform programme was initiated in 2000 in Zimbabwe, resulting in the haphazard resettlement of huge numbers of people onto enormous areas of private land. The impacts of this process on people, such as hyperinflation, poverty, and the collapse of the healthcare system, made international headlines. But until now no one had systematically studied how the wildlife populations were affected.

My colleagues and I set out to change this. With the help of experienced trackers, we conducted spoor (footprint) surveys across a thousand kilometres of transects on three land-use types: private land, resettlement land (former private land that had now been resettled), and communal land in Savé Valley Conservancy (SVC) and the surrounding area in south-eastern Zimbabwe. The spoor records allowed us to estimate the abundance of large carnivores in each area.

The author recording carnivore spoor in Zimbabwe. ©Sam Williams
The author recording carnivore spoor in Zimbabwe ©Sam Williams

We focused our analyses on large carnivores, as they are important flagship and keystone species, and our scientific findings were recently published here. On average the spoor density of carnivores was 98% lower on resettlement land than on private land. When we extrapolate this to a national scale, our tentative findings suggest that the land reform programme has resulted in declines in the number of large carnivores of up to 70% across the entire country. Worryingly, we also found that merely being close to resettlement areas was sufficient to cause declines in wildlife abundance on private land. The main driver appears to be industrial levels of poaching.

Lion spoor ©Sam Williams
Lion spoor ©Sam Williams

This is clearly bad news for wildlife, but it is also bad news for people. The declines in wildlife populations could have resulted in the loss of many of the associated benefits, such as jobs, food security and income. We also conducted hundreds of interviews to assess the level of human-wildlife conflict and found that conflict has spiked. We found that resettlement farmers reported much higher rates of cattle losses to carnivores than farmers in communal areas, despite investing more heavily in anti-predator techniques.

Endangered species such as African wild dog are under severe pressure due to land reform ©Sam Williams
Endangered species such as African wild dog are under severe pressure due to land reform ©Sam Williams

Our conclusions are that Zimbabwe’s land reform programme has been catastrophic for wildlife and for human-wildlife conflict.

What lessons can we learn from this?

Planning resettlement schemes carefully, rather than allowing them to occur haphazardly, would be a good start. This would allow resettlement areas to be located in areas of greater agricultural potential, while also maintaining connectivity of wildlife populations. We also recommend using fencing wire that cannot easily be used in the manufacture of snares. When land is resettled, the steel strands commonly used in fence construction are often stolen and used for snaring.

Leopard killed by a snare around its waist ©Sam Williams
Leopard killed by a snare around its waist ©Sam Williams

Most importantly, however, we stress that land reform doesn’t have to mean changing land use. Land reform initiatives should maintain wildlife as a land use where it is most appropriate, while diversifying the ethnic profile of landowners. Leasing resettled land back to the former owners could benefit wildlife while also raising more income for new owners, more than switching to subsistence farming. Bringing in community members as stakeholders on private land and allowing them to benefit economically from wildlife will also encourage them to protect, rather than poach, animals.

Cheetah appear to have suffered the greatest population decline due to their dependence on private land to survive ©Sam Williams
Cheetah appear to have suffered the greatest population decline due to their dependence on private land to survive ©Sam Williams

There are a whole range of potential models for achieving land reform in more productive and sustainable ways. By taking this opportunity to develop innovative models of land reform, Zimbabwe could once again become a world leader at managing land for the benefit of wildlife and for people.

An infographic summarising the findings
An infographic summarising the findings

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