Muchaneta Munodya of Mapfumo village in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province was nursing her two-week-old infant when she heard her husband Robert Maroyi screaming in pain and begging for his life.
She rushed outside to discover a hyena brutalising her husband, biting off five fingers on both hands.
When the animal spotted her, she became its next target. With a disfigured face and dismembered hands, Muchaneta found herself alongside her injured husband at the provincial hospital.
The couple would spend months receiving treatment whose costs were way beyond what they could afford.
They are not alone. For years, communities that stay in wildlife-rich areas of Zimbabwe have been living between a rock and a hard place due to constant battles with animals that encroach into their villages in search of food and water, leading to regular human-animal conflict, serious injuries and even loss of life.
My husband groans
It was around 2am on July 18, 2022, that Muchaneta’s husband had heard a screeching sound from the kraals where their livestock are housed. He quickly grabbed a torch to go have a peek at what was going on.
“My husband was surprised that the animal kept staring at him as he was approaching it with the torch. He resorted to making loud noises, which resulted in the hyena taking a few steps away from the kraals, only for it to pounce on him as he was walking back,” Muchaneta tells TRT Afrika, reliving the horror of that night.
On hearing her husband groan, she grabbed another torch, went outside and grabbed a twig with which she “intended” to defend him.
“When the hyena saw me, its attention was diverted from my husband, who was lying on the ground with his hands and face bleeding, to me,” she recalls.
That brought Muchaneta’s father and brother-in-law, both of whom struggled to rescue her from the jaws of the charged-up hyena trying to eat her alive.
Her 11-year-old son then came with a metal roofing sheet that he hurled at the animal, causing it to flee into the nearby bushes.
According to the country’s parks and wildlife management authority, ZimParks, over 80 people were killed by elephants in 2021 alone, while hundreds of others were injured by other animals such as crocodiles and hyenas.
Zimbabwe currently has the highest human-wildlife conflict death rate in the Southern Africa region.
ZimParks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo says it is hard for them to answer the high number of distress calls from communities that need help in dealing with wild animals, considering how they are under-resourced, both financially and logistically.
“Human-wildlife conflict is happening in every part of the country. We do our best every time, of course, to respond within the shortest possible time, but ZimParks is the only wildlife authority in the world that does not receive funding from the central government. We eat what we kill,” Farawo explains, responding to questions from journalists at a conservation workshop.
As much as the national cabinet approved a fund on November 1 last year aimed at cushioning families from the wrath of human-wildlife conflict by way of funeral assistance and payment of medical bills for those affected by the scourge, locals are not impressed.
Consequently, local support for conservation has been greatly undermined, a move experts say has the potential to wipe out various species.
In recent times, cases of both subsistence and commercial poaching that had over the years declined remarkably are resurfacing at an astonishing rate.
A survey conducted by Fauna and Flora Zimbabwe (FafloZim), an eco-centric community-based organisation formed by a group of environmental lawyers and other experts, found that more poachers were arrested in 2022 than the previous year.
Since July 2022, the organisation has documented the arrest of 19 people and recovery of 36 elephant tusks in Zimbabwe.
“It is very disturbing to note that at least 36 tusks have been recovered within a period of 7 months. 36 elephant tusks translate to 18 or more dead elephants,” the survey report reads.
The organisation attributes the increase in poaching activities to poverty, which is worsening due to the recurrent droughts Zimbabwe has been witnessing for years, leading to the intensification of competition for food and water between humans and wildlife.
Wild animals such as elephants, lions and hyenas have been straying into villages with increasing frequency, resulting in people losing their crops and in some instances being killed while trying to protect their livestock or crops.
The Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, a conservation group operating in Zimbabwe’s Hwange West district, notes that 159 heads of cattle were killed by lions between 2020 and last year, a devastating development for locals who rely on them as currency they can use to buy grain in times of drought.
Impact of poaching
As a result of supplementing their losses to wildlife, communities that are adjacent to protected areas, or those with wildlife like the Sentinel Limpopo Safari situated along the borders of Zimbabwe and South Africa, are invading the conservation area, killing animals for food and for sale like never before.
One of the headmen in the district, Ketumile Mahopolo Nare, is quoted as saying in a recent interview, “poaching of wildlife for food or for sale has become the order for the day in our area. People are starving and struggling to provide for their families due to drought and the frequent loses they are incurring at the hands of wild animals, therefore, hunting of animals such as antelopes, elands, impalas, and hares has become a way out for many.”
Director of Sentinel Limpopo Safaris, Vanessa Bristow, buttressed headman Nare’s sentiments, saying having people in the local communities resort to poaching as a way of recovering losses emanating from human-wildlife conflict was a disheartening development.
“Local communities believe that the wildlife belongs to them as a community and this should also be their source of livelihoods. Since the community has not been receiving any funds from the revenue that was collected from the safari, they feel that their needs are being neglected which leave them with no other option than to survive on poaching,” she says.
A 2021 report by the World Wildlife Forum (WWF) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warns that human-wildlife conflict is the main threat to the long-term survival of some of the world’s most emblematic species.