Marauding elephants that escaped from the Hwange National Park, an animal sanctuary in rural southwestern Zimbabwe, are destroying any hopes among peasant farmers of a moderately successful harvest.
Arid climatic conditions are expected to blight agricultural production in the southwest this year, according to a recent forecast by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), while Zimbabwe's political and economic turmoil is also affecting both food production and food security.
Elephants from the 14,600 square kilometre nature reserve, which lies about 150km south of Victoria Falls on the main road to Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, are straying from the park in search of food, wreaking havoc on the meagre crops villagers were expecting to harvest after the summer rains ended prematurely.
Erica Hlongwane, 46, spends most of her time protecting the remnants of her wilting maize crop from further destruction by elephants, at the expense of her household chores.
"Life has become unbearable because of these elephants which destroy our crops," said Hlongwane, who lives with a teenage daughter and a younger son in the rural Tsholotsho district, about 100km northwest of Bulawayo, in Matabeleland North Province, while her husband works in neighbouring South Africa.
|On the one hand we worry about the prospect of hunger because of crop failure, while on the other we count the losses stray elephants are causing daily|
"On one hand we worry about the prospect of hunger because of crop failure, while on the other we count the losses stray elephants are causing daily," she told IRIN, displaying a few maize cobs she had managed to salvage after a herd of elephants rampaged through her small field the previous night.
"We also fear the elephants might demolish our pole-and-mud huts," she said. Despite attempts by the villagers to scare away the elephants, using drums and hand-made cymbals, she said bull elephants would sometimes charge the villagers, who are no match for an elephant.
"The authorities should save us from this ordeal," Hlongwane said, referring to the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (NPWMA), which is responsible for managing problem animals.
Another peasant farmer in the district told IRIN he had lost nearly a fifth of his sorghum crop to browsing elephants and blamed the NPWMA for ignoring the villagers' appeals for assistance.
"We heeded advice from agricultural experts to grow small grains as a hedge against possible erratic rains, as this is a semi-dry area, but our hopes have been shattered by elephant herds that roam this area," said Timothy Dakamela, another small-scale farmer.
Fears of food shortages
Dakamela said the ZANU-PF government should provide food aid to avert serious food shortages in the district's villages. About one-third of Zimbabwe's around 12 million population are receiving emergency food aid.
"Unless something is done to stop the elephant menace we will solicit for food again, although we had anticipated we would be able to fend for our families for the better part of the year from the hectarage we had put under crop," he said.
A joint crop assessment report, released in March by Zimbabwe's Ministry of Agriculture and the FAO, indicated that a shortage of agricultural inputs, such as seed and fertilisers, meant Zimbabwe could face another grain shortfall this year.
|Unless something is done to stop the elephant menace we will solicit for food again, although we had anticipated we would be able to fend for our families for the better part of the year from the acreage we had put under crop|
FAO said in a statement on 10 April that extremely dry weather in several provinces of Zimbabwe "is likely to cause serious damage to the main 2008 maize harvest. This could aggravate an already precarious food security situation in the country."
Hlongwane and Dakamela, who have yet to receive agricultural inputs from the state, said the destruction wrought by stray elephants was their major concern.
Dakamela said elephants had roamed their districts in the past, but an electric fence had controlled the movement of wildlife and deterred elephants from encroaching on villagers' homesteads and crops. The fence has been vandalised and has fallen into disrepair, while power outages are commonplace.
The presence of elephants used to be a boon to the villagers, but three years ago the Communal Areas Management and Programme of Indigenous Resources (Campfire), collapsed as a result of donor fatigue, depriving the surrounding communities of the benefit of wildlife management and its proceeds.
The Campfire system had enabled communities to establish income-generating businesses, such as tourist lodges, build clinics and schools, and maintain social structures, quite apart from the protection of their crops afforded by the electric fences.
Cash-strapped local district councils assumed management of Campfire, but are grappling to make it sustainable amid an eight-year economic recession that has brought Zimbabwe the world's highest annual inflation rate of more than 100,000 percent and a sharp drop in international tourism.
Zeb Mutoki, head of Matabeleland North's National Parks and Wildlife Authority, said local district council officials were mandated to deal with problem animals in their areas, and were permitted to enlist professional hunters to cull problem animals, such as elephants. The proceeds of the cull were used to compensate villagers who had suffered crop losses.
"Only when the problem is too serious for them to manage and control on their own do they seek our assistance," Mutoki said. At the moment district council officials in that area have not sent us an SOS."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions