TSHOLOTSHO, 22 April 2009 (IRIN) - Marauding wild animals in Zimbabwe's Matabeleland North Province are adding anguish to the pain of hunger as they destroy scarce crops.
Thin rainfall and a lack of agricultural inputs have brought poor harvests in recent years, leaving more than half the country's 12 million people reliant on emergency food aid.
In Tsholotsho district in Matabeleland North Province, and Insiza North district in Matabeleland South Province, food shortages are being compounded by elephants eating and trampling the villagers' crops.
To counter the threat of elephants and other wild animals like wild pigs, baboons and quelea birds from the nearby Hwange National Park, where over 100 000 elephants roam the country's biggest animal sanctuary, villagers have taken to guarding their fields.
"We are spending nights out in the fields and we have formed ourselves into groups . we spend the nights awake in the fields as we try to drive away the elephants so that we could save some of our crops," Timothy Nyoni a Tsholotsho villager, told IRIN.
"We have situations where the elephants have flattened an entire family crop. We fear that if the elephants are not controlled, the whole district's crop will be lost this year," said Nyoni, who lost part of his crop to elephants two weeks ago.
Samukele Tshabangu, who also lives in Tsholotsho, told IRIN: "We light fires to drive away the elephants. In most fields we light unattended fires 50 metres apart to scare the elephants away, but you find that the fields are quite large and policing every inch becomes a problem - at times the elephants are aggressive and they attack the villagers, who are forced to flee."
Villagers said the elephants often arrived in herds of about 12 and the larger the herd the more aggressive they were towards humans.
"Baboons and wild pigs are also causing havoc, and they invade the fields in broad daylight in large numbers, compared to the elephants," said Josephine Nyoni, a villager from the Mlevu ward in Tsholotsho "They are difficult to chase off, so while adults keep night vigils, children, women and the elderly have to watch the fields during the day."
Headman Mlevu, the Mlevu village chief, said: "The elephants are destroying crops and people might starve despite the good rains that fell countrywide, and if we are to have a meaningful harvest then something has to be done urgently."
Zimbabweans have to seek permission from the Communal Area Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPIRE) project to kill troublesome animals, but the project has become hamstrung by the myriad socio-economic problems facing the country. The matter was reported to the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority but there has been no response as yet.
Morris Mtsambiwa, director general of the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, told IRIN: "The massive increase in the population of elephants is to blame for the problems villagers are facing. Some of the elephants are now affecting the livelihood of villagers, and unless we control the elephant population the elephant-human relations problem will persist."
He said the authorities had inadequate resources to combat the problem, but one way to deal with it was to increase the number of elephants killed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which permits a certain number of tusks to be traded annually.
"We are pushing for an increase in the number of trophy elephants from 500 to 600 annually, and that will be one way of dealing with the problem elephants, as the country currently has a population of over 100,000 elephants," Mtsambiwa said.
Large flocks of quelea birds are also descending on fields in the district, destroying crops of small grains such as millet and sorghum.
"We have done everything in our power to stop the birds from devouring our crops. If the birds are chased away from one field they fly to the next field, where they devour the crops," Sithabile Ndlovu told IRIN in Insiza district.
"The birds get used [to our tactics] and they now ignore the scarecrows, so villagers have to be in the fields beating drums and tins to scare away the birds," Ndlovu said. "Otherwise, if we sit back the quelea birds will reduce our harvests."