Passionate Conservation Efforts Working Under a Dark Shadow
Having worked in sustainable tourism for a few years, conservation, in particular animal conservation, is hugely important to me. I work with a number of NGOs and businesses who aim to protect the longevity of precious species in our ever-deteriorating society and help educate local communities on how to safeguard their surrounding wildlife.
One of the most endangered species in the world is the black rhino, native to eastern and central Africa, with only around 5000 remaining. This animal is central to the work done at my most recent volunteer venture: Zimbabwe rhino and elephant conservation, booked through Real Gap. This project is based on a 10,000 hectare reserve, Imire, approx. 105km from Harare and is home to a number of elephant, buffalo, antelope, giraffe, zebra and black and white rhino.
Norman Travers founded Imire in the 1950s and, after a number of years farming maize, tobacco and cattle, moved into wildlife conservation and breeding. Since then, they have set up an effective volunteer conservation programme (est.2005) and successfully bred black rhino and elephants.
Face-to-face with endangered species
Ten years on, in the wake of significant press coverage I felt inspired to visit this fascinating country and endeavour to assist in any way I could in the protection of the endangered black rhino. This project, and the passion exuded by the owners (Watch: There’s a rhino in my bed) really appealed to me, and it did not disappoint!
Each day on the project was different to the next which gave all volunteers (even those on short two-week projects like me) the chance to experience the range of work that goes on at the reserve. This included feeding, cleaning, monitoring behaviour, maintenance, bush clearance and much more. Aside from the conservation work on the reserve we also helped out in the local school, teaching English to children whose parents worked in and around Imire. Their enthusiasm and delight when we arrived for the lessons always brought a smile to our faces and they kept us on our toes when the lessons finished and the games commenced.
The attention and care the handlers show the rhino and elephants is enchanting. They treat them as if they are one of their own, which I guess, to a certain extent, they are. Imire is one big family and if anything were to happen to any of the animals, or workers, the devastation would be shared among everyone.
A threatening shadow
In spite of the optimistic aura surrounding Imire there is a darker problem constantly bubbling away behind the scenes. Mugabe.
Mugabe has never been known for animal protection; however, he has caused worldwide controversy recently when a feast of wild animals was served to his guests at his 91st birthday party:
“His guests were fed a young elephant, and two buffaloes, two sables and five impalas were also donated to the president by a local landowner,” said a report in The Independent. “He also threw in a lion and a crocodile to be stuffed as an extra gift for Mugabe. On top of this, 40 cows were offered to the president by two members of his government. A second elephant is going to be shot and given to the Victoria Falls community.”
This, understandably, sparked even more publicity surrounding animal conservation but at the same time reinvigorated a new spate of white farmers’ land being targeted and captured following Mugabe’s birthday speech.
These invasions are potentially disastrous for conservation projects such as Imire. Without the correct care and protection, the already-threatened black rhino is even more vulnerable to poaching and subsequent extinction than before! Early February 2015 saw Joel Biggie Matiza, Mashonaland East Provincial Affairs Minister, take a provincial tour in an attempt to drive out white farmers. Imire resisted the invasion; however they were forced to contribute to the government-run Community Share Ownership Trust (CSOT). Although it is better to cough up the money than to lose the reserve, this is still a blow to the project and, again, means more money wasted which could be going to vital preservation resources.
Don’t be put off
Having visited the project and seen the amazing work they do, I would recommend this trip to anyone. It was hands-on, productive, friendly, fun, and I met some fantastic people along the way. Zimbabwe itself is absolutely beautiful and, although it doesn’t have the best reputation in terms of safety, I felt completely comfortable throughout my trip and did not feel threatened once. I would urge people to look past the negative media surrounding Mugabe and Zimbabwe and experience for themselves the magic of this amazing country.