Back in 1997 when I knew it, Zimbabwe's Communal Areas Management Programme For Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) was revered as one of the best community-based conservation initiatives in Africa. Things have fallen apart so badly since then that the campfire-zimbabwe.org web page is no longer maintained and its URL has been taken over by a bottom-feeding American trout fishing concern. Zimbabwe's natural resources are yet another casualty of the Mugabe regime, which despite sanctions seems determined to bury what is left and squat above the bones.
"Zimbabwe finds itself in the midst of an unprecedented political and social upheaval as a direct result of the government-instigated private-land seizures that began in the year 2000. Throughout this turmoil there has been a widespread fear of state agents, lack of fuel, corruption and a rampant disregard for ethics, hyperinflation, a lack of foreign currency, loss of skilled professionals to other countries, a disintegrating education system, widespread HIV and skyrocketing mortality rates, a collapsing tourism industry and a general lack of information about what is really happening in the country.
These rapid social and economic changes have been extremely detrimental to both wildlife and environment, yet the wildlife crisis has been somewhat overlooked given the overwhelming humanitarian disaster gripping the country. Information about the wildlife and conservation industry is scarce and otherwise anecdotal as many wildlife management systems have been dismantled. Even so, a reflective analysis of anecdotal reports reveals some consistent patterns:
• Wildlife on most of the privately owned conservancies and game farms in the dryer areas of the country have been severely poached by a variety of people exploiting the break down of the rule of law.
• The damage to Zimbabwe's wildlife heritage has not been systematically assessed due to the prevailing war-like situation on the ground, but all reports point to catastrophic losses of irreplaceable endangered species such as black rhinos and painted dogs, as well as the destruction of commercially important herds of wildlife.
• The Communal Lands and National Parks have been less severely affected, but worrying reports indicate that the security of wildlife and the environment in these areas continues to deteriorate daily, and risks to animal populations in these areas are increasing due to chronic environmental problems, increasingly uninformed and irrational actions by politicians, loss of human capacity and deteriorating infrastructure.
Chronic environmental problems affecting Zimbabwe include deforestation and overgrazing, water pollution, invasive plant and animal species, uncontrolled fires, human-wildlife conflict, dams, elephant over-population and wildlife borne disease. Zimbabwe is sorely lacking the finances and expertise to systematically tackle these problems, and many of the management, mitigation and education programs in place prior to the year 2000 have stopped due to the deteriorating working conditions and the flight of conservation professionals. The prevailing situation has severely demoralised the remaining conservation professionals and educators."
I remember the hope and optimism expressed by newly empowered CAMPFIRE participants about their empowerment as local resource users caring for their environment and benefiting from their careful stewardship. The erosion of Democratic institutions like those promoted through CAMPFIRE are another consequence of Mugabe's despotism and the spiraling crisis facing this very troubled land.