The Elephant War

Animal rights activists want to kill the best hope yet for African wildlife

| November-December 1996

In the small rural community of Mola in northwestern Zimbabwe, villagers have an uncommon regard for the word campfire. To them it means food, a medical clinic, school, jobs that pay well. CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) stands for a radical and uniquely African approach to conserving wildlife that has done more to save elephants than any other conservation program on the continent. Yet the program—which allows villagers to sell the rights to hunt wildlife, including elephants, on their land and use the proceeds for village improvement—has invited the wrath of American and European animal rights groups. In what has become an escalating war between African and Western conservationists, CAMPFIRE officials argue that, unlike the West’s protectionist policies, which have historically isolated humans from nature, their approach is both more holistic and more suitable to the African landscape, and reconciles the preservation of animals with the needs of impoverished people.

Beginning in the 1890s the British colonial government in Rhodesia moved rural people from their fertile ancestral farmlands into so-called communal areas, which, like many Indian reservations in the United States, were far less productive. The villagers were prohibited from hunting wildlife on their lands and from protecting themselves and their crops from marauding elephants and other dangerous animals. Dispossessed of their land and denied the right to hunt, they often turned to poaching.

In 1989, realizing that rural people’s dependence on wild species could be an important factor in economic development and conservation, the Zimbabwean government transferred proprietorship over the wildlife in the Nyaminyami district (where Mola is located) to the villagers. Through CAMPFIRE, the government returned responsibility for the management of wildlife and any benefits derived from it—Including income generated by hunting, meat marketing, and tourism—to the people who share the land with the animals.

Today, 24 of Zimbabwe’s 56 districts participate in the program, generating an estimated $2 million in revenues per year—a huge sum in a country where the average annual household income is $150. Ninety percent of all cash income is produced by safari hunting (in 1993, 171 elephants were hunted). All CAMPFIRE-produced revenues go directly to the local communities. How the money is used—to build a school or a medical clinic, or to hire local game rangers to help protect the animals—is decided by the local villagers.

We are very fortunate to have CAMPFIRE, says deputy headmaster Mawonei, echoing the sentiments of other villagers in Mola. “We were able to build our primary school, which holds over 790 students, with CAMPFIRE money. We are still overcrowded with students—there’s a ratio of 40 students to one teacher—and some students have to walk two hours from home to the school because we can’t afford to buy a minivan to transport them. But CAMPFIRE money helps to educate many students and to care for their health.”

CAMPFIRE appears to benefit the elephants as well. Drought, competition for land, and poaching had reduced the elephant population in Africa from 1.3 million animals in 1979 to fewer than 700,000 in 1987. Since the CAMPFIRE program was instituted, Zimbabwe’s elephant population has increased by nearly 55 percent, to over 82,000 in 1995. “When rural communities are allowed to benefit from harvesting the wild, they try to protect the wild, not destroy it,” says Jon Hutton, projects director of Africa Resources Trust, a voluntary organization that helps implement the CAMPFIRE programs.