By Allan Larson
Zimbabwe is on our photo-safari itinerary next month. A common question is, “Why would you go to Zimbabwe and have your dollars support a brutal thug like Robert Mugabe?” I think our dollars mainly support the game lodges and their staffs, the national parks and game refuges and, most importantly, the wildlife.
Times are tough in Zim. The government is essentially broke. The currency is valueless. State employees are not paid. There is little food even for those who can afford it. Wildlife poaching is rampant and some of those hired to protect wildlife are poaching as well just to feed themselves and their families.
I am returning to Hwange National Park in western Zim, on the border with Botswana. I was last there in 2006. This is semi-desert brush country. It is harsh country indeed. Nevertheless, Hwange and a vast area around it support large and diverse populations of big animals: elephants, lions, buffalo, wildebeest, zebras and, until the last couple of years, one of Africa’s better populations of black rhinos. In the dry season, these animals are quite dependent on scattered, man-made water holes; I think there are 23 in Hwange N.P. Things are so bad in the Zim economy that after the government stopped paying park staff and supplying them food rations, it shut off fuel supplies to water pumps at the water holes. Tragedy was averted when a coalition of lodge owners, conservation groups and hunting organizations supplied the needed fuel.
So am I somehow supporting the Mugabe regime by traveling to Hwange N.P.? Probably a little. But the lodges and camps are privately owned. They have large staffs of locals. They are vitally concerned about the well-being of animals. In large areas of many parks and game refuges, the lodge staffs of highly trained guides and rangers are the backbone of wildlife conservation. A viable photo/tourist and hunting industry puts people in the bush whose livelihood is dependent on healthy animal populations. I believe a visit to a Zimbabwe lodge or camp provides a very direct benefit to the local people and the wildlife.