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Partners in conservation – It’s all about teamwork

As a young boy I often dreamt of becoming a park ranger, working in the bush, saving Africa’s wildlife. Little did I know nor understand the complexities that are involved in conservation work.

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Hugo van der Westhuizen above Gonarezhou. (Photo: Natasha Anderson)

Gonarezhou, Zimbabwe June 2015 by Hugo van der Westhuizen 

 

One day, when I made my dream a reality, I realized that I spent most of my time dealing with “people” related issues rather than dealing directly with animals. With human populations growing at an exponential rate, and illegal wildlife trafficking on a global scale, the pressure on our natural resources must be a concern for every person on earth.

 

It is easy to get despondent and to think that our work is in vain, especially if one reads articles indicating statistics such as:  “Mozambique loses 48% of it’s elephant population in the last 5 years”, and, knowing that the National Park you are working in shares a 110 km boundary with that same country. It's no longer a question of if the crisis will hit us, it's only about when.

 

Commitment is crucial

What really motivates me though is the dedication of some of the people I work and interact with on a daily basis.

 

It may sound hypocritical to say that the biggest threats against nature are caused by people, but at the same time also that the solutions can only be found by people. I am often asked what the most important factor is that determines whether our work is successful or not. It is an easy question for me to answer. 


It is all about the dedication of the people we are supporting, working in difficult circumstances and protecting the last wild areas and its wildlife. We can have all financial resources and good intentions in the world, but if the people who are doing the actual work on the ground are not committed to what they are doing, then we are wasting our time, money and dreams. I have been privileged to work alongside people that I know would offer up their lives, and in fact some have done so, in the quest for a safer natural environment. These people are extremely valuable and dedicated to their work. 

 

At the helm of the northern sector of Gonarezhou I know such a person, Area Manager Evious Mpofu. I have worked with Evious on a daily basis since the start of the project, and we exchange ideas and information constantly. The relationship between us is critical for the successful implementation of our work. Without his guidance, support and dedication, the Gonarezhou would have been a very different place, and the impact that FZS can achieve would be much diminished.

 

I took a few minutes from his busy schedule to have a chat and ask him a few questions. 

Interview with Area Manager Evious Mpofu

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Areal manager Evious Mpofu and FZS project leader Hugo van der Westhuizen. (Photo: Elsabe van der Westhuizen)

How long have you been working for National Parks?
 

I started working for parks 20 years ago. Initially I wanted to become a teacher, but my passion for wildlife made me change my mind.  Also there were already quite a few teachers in our family and I wanted to do something different.


What does conservation and National Parks mean to the people of Zimbabwe?

 

Wildlife and Parks are very important to the people of Zimbabwe, because if you see the areas outside the National Parks there is no wildlife and very little natural resources left. This is mainly because of the tragedy of the community, where everyone wants to use resources at the cost of others. The areas which are covered by National Parks have a big advantage because biodiversity is conserved in these areas. This is very important for our future generations.

 

What do you think is the biggest challenge that Gonarezhou is currently facing?

 

The biggest challenge is commercial poaching. 

 

Is this a new challenge?


Poaching will always be present where you have poor people on park boundaries. We need to accept that it will be with us for a long time, especially in view of growing human populations. However, we are seeing a new trend of commercial poaching specifically for elephant and this is a big concern.

 

We know that Kruger National Park is losing rhinos at a very alarming rate, and these poachers mainly come from Mozambique. Gonarezhou has a very similar problem in the sense that we have a long boundary with Mozambique. Are you worried about this?
 

I am very concerned about this. This is why we are doing everything possible with your support to counter this threat. Kruger National Park is investing heavily in law enforcement. And at some stage the poaching there will either become unviable because it is too much of a risk, or the animals that are poached will become too few to make it worthwhile for poachers. Gonarezhou will be the next target and we are already seeing an upward trend in elephant poaching.

You have been in Gonarezhou since 2007 when the FZS started here.  What in your experience has the FZS brought to Gonarezhou?

 

FZS has brought a lot of changes in Gonarezhou. In most cases it is very rare for foreign organisations to invest in National Parks in Zimbabwe, but Gonarezhou has been very fortunate to have the FZS here.  We now have a lot of support to conserve the Gonarezhou and to help us with our work. We are now able to cover all the most critical aspects of our work. I have been working outside Gonarezhou in other national parks and we were struggling because of limitations. But it is totally different in Gonarezhou because of the support from FZS .

 

As a foreign organisation the FZS is a visitor in your country. Is it a challenge to have a foreign organisations inside a park? 


It could be a challenge if you don’t understand the value of a partnership. Conservation is all about teamwork, and partnerships is the best way to achieve our objectives. We have a lot to gain from this partnership with FZS in terms of technical advice and financial support and sharing of experiences. Our work is complicated but sharing these complexities within this partnership makes things easier. Our relationship with FZS is very positive, because FZS arrived at a time when we really needed help to solve some of the challenges we were facing.

 

What achievements have been reached since FZS has been here?

 

One of the first activities that FZS supported us was with planning. We now have a General Management Plan (GMP) for Gonarezhou which I believe is the only ministerial approved GMP in the country. The GMP is our bible for conserving Gonarezhou and it covers aspects such as sustainable tourism, park administration and infrastructure, biodiversity and natural resource and collaborative management. After that FZS supported us with renovations of staff houses, equipment, training, maintenance and infrastructure to name a few things. Now the FZS supports us by employing more people to cover key personnel shortages and is also providing support to communities.
 

How do you see the future of Gonarezhou ?


I see a bright future for Gonarezhou, because there are a number of strategies in place and being planned to make Gonarezhou function better. One strategy that ZPWMA (Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority) and FZS are busy discussing is the development of a trust, which will pursue a sustainable National Park and will secure the future of Gonarezhou even further.


Do you enjoy your work?


I really like my work, but it was a challenge to achieve my goals before FZS came to Gonarezhou. But now that FZS is here to provide technical and financial support, my work has become easier and I can really achieve my objectives. I think we are already there (laugh), but my ambition is to make Gonarezhou the best protected area in the country and even in Africa.

 

Thank you for what you do for Gonarezhou, and for your open and transparent management style. As a foreign NGO we are only as effective as the people on the ground, and you have showed that together we can achieve a lot. 

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