Zimbabwean fisherman Jealous Alafai is in no doubt about his favourite animal. “The elephant, of course. It’s my totem.” The Shona people of Zimbabwe have a unique relationship with animals. Totems are sacred emblems – commonly animals and plants – that represent a family or society, and serve as a reminder of a clan’s history and ancestry. For the Shona, totems exist not only to identify clans but also as a way to govern relations. People who share the same totem are not allowed to get married or have intimate relationships because they are believed to share a common ancestor.
It is perhaps this special connection to animals that has turned Alafai, 52, into an enthusiastic conservation champion. “In our culture, we don’t eat our totem animals. We respect them,” he says.
Alafai has been fishing the Zambezi river for over eight years. In that time, he has seen poachers use the waterway to transport wildlife trophies and other contraband, contributing to a thriving transboundary illegal wildlife trade.
With several protected areas located along the banks of the Zambezi, the river has gained a reputation for providing a quick getaway route for wildlife poachers and traffickers. As the river forms a natural boundary between Zimbabwe and Zambia, while also snaking its way through Botswana, Namibia and Angola, it is also a perfect barrier to law enforcement, as poachers cross to a different jurisdiction and so dodge pursuit. Different national laws and regulations further hamper the prosecution of wildlife crimes.
With support of the European Union, African Wildlife Foundation led a project to address this problem, working with fishing and wildlife authorities in Zambia and Zimbabwe to enlist fishers on the Zambezi into the fight against illegal wildlife trade.
“Conservation is all about preserving wildlife and making sure that we don’t end up with no wildlife at all,” said Alafai. “As fishermen, we report poaching activities to the authorities. We help to monitor activity in this river and keep an eye out for people transporting ivory and other wildlife products.”
With this intelligence, local authorities were able to identify and pursue offenders. The system was so effective that the very presence of fishermen in the river proved a deterrent to poachers. Hotlines set up to report wildlife crimes led to 58 arrests and recovery of illegal wildlife products, including 524 kg of wild meat, 126 kg of illegal raw ivory, 23 animal skins and trophies, 129 live animals including pangolins, eight firearms and 13 rounds of live ammunition.
In exchange for their monitoring, AWF supported fishers to deal with their own challenges. It provided training and support which led to improved management and governance of the fishery, and the adoption of local by-laws aimed at improved administration of fish resources at community level. Fishers were mentored in financial and business management, project feasibility assessment and leadership. One group of fishers now sets aside 20 % of its monthly income for business growth, to contribute towards the construction of new fishing boats.
Meanwhile, the project also worked with local communities in Hurungwe and Mbire districts to reduce human-wildlife conflict (HWC) in the area. In areas adjacent to protected areas, local communities frequently suffer severe impacts from close contact with wildlife, including injury, death, loss of crops, livestock predation, destruction of infrastructure, disease transmission and reduced productivity. The project introduced community-based mitigation strategies to reduce these impacts, including non-lethal chili-based repellants (chili guns, strings and bricks), beehives, with measures targeting hyenas and lions in particular (chili and reflectors, respectively). As a consequence, the district became a leader in HWC mitigation, with many other communities learning from its example.
The project, ‘Partnership for improved anti-poaching and compatible land use in community lands of the Lower Zambezi–Mana Pools Transboundary Conservation Area’, was implemented in 2018-2021. Original reporting by Jacqueline Kubania, African Wildlife Foundation.