The flagship Hwange National Park (HNP) is Zimbabwe’s largest park at over 14,500 km2. The park has outstanding national and global biodiversity importance and is home to the second largest (~ 45000) wild elephant population in the world and other rare/endangered species. The responsibility to protect and manage these global assets rests with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) and its 240 rangers who patrol the park day and night. The global COVID -19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on potential revenue in major parks, namely Matopos NP, Victoria Falls, Zambezi, Mana Pools, and Hwange. ZimParks anticipate losing approximately US$20 million this year in tourism receipts. This has already compromised wildlife protection and management of the park's estates.
The Government of Zimbabwe has designated wildlife protection as an essential service and as such, ZimParks has maintained rangers on the ground.
In normal circumstances, field rangers regard this as a call to service rather than a job. Given the remoteness of the field stations, their worry and fear are for their most valued treasure- their families. Given the nature of the job and lack of basic amenities like schools and clinics, most rangers live separately for long periods of time from their families who are several kilometers away in their rural homes or in town where their kids have access to education and health facilities. The school holidays are rare periods for them to see their families, albeit for a short time before their extended deployments. The 21-day country lockdown meant intercity travel was banned, meaning this rare family opportunity has eluded the men and women protecting our wildlife.
Away from this psychological nightmare, rangers have to make do with the harsh realities of the job.
Some deployment outposts lack basic infrastructure to accommodate field rangers and rangers share two-man tents during the extended 14-day patrols. This means social distancing is an alien concept to the men and women protecting our wildlands and endangered wildlife. This health risk is a chance rangers will take, given the alternative will be to sleep outside under the open sky exposing oneself to the predators that freely roam the landscape. Wildlife stations are generally remote and they need to be equipped to a level that enables them to manage patients until they get to hospitals but also without endangering those assisting the infected. The ZimParks does not have enough materials and gadgets like ambulances, sanitizers, thermometers, and protective gear for use by field rangers.
Supplies of anti-poaching operations provisions like patrol rations, fuel, and vehicle service has been a challenge because of limited financial resources to purchase the stuff. Several tour operators that used to assist the rangers have since scaled down or have all but stopped assisting rangers in the field. During and post the coronavirus pandemic, the duty and responsibility of protecting our wildlife rests on a few dedicated field personnel who remain committed to duty even under such difficult times like these. Our collective remedy is to offer tangible support to the amazing custodians of nature who risk it all for our benefit.
-Phillip Kuvawoga, Director of Landscape Conservation