Michael Magoronga, Midlands Correspondent
THE vast expanses of savannah grasslands turn into a massive 50km ankle-deep animal reserve as one exits Kwekwe along Mvuma Road. The Midlands Black Rhino Conservancy (MBRC) stands out as if to confirm its importance in a country known for having large animal protection areas in the form of national parks such as the vast Hwange and Gonarezhou.
The MBRC is not only home to the rare species of black rhino but also hosts a good variety of other wildlife such as elephant, sand dweller, leopard, eland, kudu, giraffe, crocodile, African painted dog, the African rock python and the waterbuck among others.
Although the main objective of the conservation area of just over 60,000 hectares is to protect and conserve the environment and wildlife, in particular but not limited to the black rhino, its scope does not end there. , it also aims to promote and engage in best wildlife and land management practices appropriate to the achievement of its primary task.
The MBRC was established in the late 1980s after concerns were raised about the extent of drought and poaching of black rhinos across Zimbabwe. In response to these calls, it became necessary to welcome the black rhino and other endangered species from high risk areas to low risk areas.
Its birth was the result of 14 properties coming together who formed a trust that gave a total of 63,000 hectares to house the rhino, which was threatened by border areas as it could easily be poached and smuggled into countries. neighbors.
With the help of the government, a significant number of black rhinos have been relocated to the area where they have found protection and an environment conducive to their breeding.
The MBRC is a less drought prone area and offers much better protection with few recorded rhino losses.
After starting with around 50 rhinos in the late 1980s, a few were relocated for various reasons such as territorial infighting, inbreeding and some poaching as vegetation destruction was rampant in the area. and that a significant number of rhinos were lost.
During the height of the land reform program in the early 2000s, some farmers also took advantage and settled within the reserve.
Uncoordinated settlements have led to increased poaching as well as increased destruction of the rhino-friendly environment.
This posed a threat to their lives, with their numbers dropping to three, with the protected animal nearing extinction.
Having noticed this, the trust sought government intervention and also proposed measures to try to save the rhino from extinction.
Among other interventions, the MBRC has engaged the community to educate them on wildlife conservation, periodically donated food baskets to alleviate poverty, which tends to lead to poaching, as well as rolling out a tree plantation project. trees that will rehabilitate the environment.
Recently, more than 2,000 families received food baskets and seeds, including cowpeas and sorghum, as conservation encourages the cultivation of crops resilient to climate change.
MBRC Chairman Mr. Garry Killilea believes that engaging the community, educating them and ensuring they are well fed will reduce the risk of poaching.
Mr Killilea said that in its quest to protect the black rhino and the environment, the MBRC was not ignoring the plight of people close to the reserve as it tried to minimize situations that could lead to wildlife poaching and the destruction of the environment.
“We want to continue working with our community. We have lined up a number of projects to benefit the community. This is why we have also developed the Community Development Center within the reserve which will, among other things, offer environmental and wildlife conservation courses to the community and learners. We have also developed hunger alleviation measures to empower our community,” Mr. Killilea said.
The trust has not recorded any poaching cases for around seven years, bringing the number to eight, with two more births expected this year.
According to MBRC Conservator, Mr Brilliant Chibura, uncoordinated relocations remained the reserve’s biggest challenge.
“The first thing is that unauthorized or uncoordinated settlements are rampant, with people dividing up land within the reservation without our being consulted. Some people are also doing it without the knowledge of the government,” Mr Chibura said.
Either way, Mr Chibura thinks it’s important to educate new settlers about wildlife protection.
“Unlike the rest of the reserves in Zimbabwe, this is an Intensive Protection Area certificate holder, which means all the animals inside are wild. By the time settlers arrive, they compound the risk of human conflict with wildlife, so new settlers need to be oriented to learn how to stay with wild animals,” he said.
The program began to reap rewards after some farmers received training through MBRC’s Wildlife Protection Management College.
He said some farmers had removed the boundary fence to allow free roaming of wildlife.
“We are not against land reform, but we are calling on the government to ensure that the farmers who settle there specialize in raising cattle in order to avoid cutting down trees for agriculture. The first thing farmers do is cut down trees for agriculture. Some of the trees that are cut down are the ones the rhino survives on,” Mr Chibura said.
There has also been a sea change in land use, with farmers heeding the conservation call to live in harmony with nature.
This, according to Mr. Chibura, has led to a drastic drop in poaching cases.
Regarding the environment, he believes that the tree planting project will go a long way in restoring the vegetation that has been destroyed by the farmers.
“We have started distributing trees and we plan to plant over 10,000 seedlings by the end of the year. We have a seedling center where every member of the community is free to harvest tree seedlings. We also work with schools which we equip with tree planting projects,” he said.
The area’s traditional ruler, Chief Gwesela, said they were behind MBRC’s agendas, adding that he would do everything in his power to ensure the settlements were stopped.
“I fully support the MBRC project and we don’t want people giving away land inside the area. I am studying the matter and will deal decisively with such things as we want our rhinos to be safe. If I fail, I will engage the government,” he said.
He said the community is also fully supportive of conservation and is now able to report cases of poaching.
“We have worked well with the MBRC to educate the community on the dangers of poaching and other illicit acts and I am happy that this is now bearing fruit. People can now report each other whenever poaching happens, which never happened before,” Chief Gwesela said.
With the full support of the community and traditional leaders, the MBRC is poised to thrive, which will make its rhino conservation a resounding success.