Marketing Alpha Partners

Zimbabwe: Conservation
and the community

I’ve always been passionate about the environment and biodiversity. I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya and really loved the wildlife and the natural environment when I was living there. It’s something that has never really left me and my recent trip to Zimbabwe, my first visit to the African continent in over 40 years, reinforced my desire to get more involved in protecting the natural environment in Africa.

I wanted to share my experiences following the time I recently spent with ALERT (The African Lion and Environmental Research Trust) and Wildlife Encounter in Zimbabwe. I was there to document, through photography, all the good work that ALERT does. I spent my time in a place called ‘Fuller Forest’, which is located near Victoria Falls. Fuller Forest acts as a buffer zone between the Zambezi National Park and local community land, which means the team at ALERT play an important role in helping manage human-wildlife conflict.

My visit reinforced three things: It’s given me a much stronger appreciation of nature and the importance and complexity of biodiversity; It’s brought me closer to how renewable energy can really change lives (we often get lost in this when we talk about the energy transition) and it has reinforced how important education is to bring everyone much closer to nature.

A quick introduction to the non-profit organisation I was working with

ALERT is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation of the African lion and the ecosystems on which the species rely on. However, I quickly learnt that ALERT has a muti-disciplinary approach to conservation, where they study the full eco-system from flora to fauna. And as part of their multi-disciplinary approach, ALERT works with surrounding communities that lie alongside protected areas and often suffer from conflicts with wildlife – working with local communities to mitigate wild animal attacks on livestock is another important part of ALERT’s work. And then there’s conservation education to reinforce the importance of conservation and the environment with young children. This also involves working with teachers and community leaders on the importance of caring for wildlife and the natural environment. ALERT is also involved in other research projects – they began giraffe research in Zambezi National Park in 2017 and are also involved in researching lions in Chizarira National Park.

I was involved in a range of assignments and my specific role was to document everything through photography for ALERT. This included bird surveys, documenting camera trap research (one camera picked up a leopard), snare trap searches (unfortunately poaching is still an issue) and nocturnal species surveys – it’s quite amazing to see spotted eagle owls at night – they are very large! You begin to appreciate the importance of our natural environment and biodiversity. And then we spent time in the local community learning first-hand, and documenting through photography, some of the human-wildlife challenges, alongside learning about ALERT’s education focus.

Camera traps and the Leopard photographed at night – and a hawk owl at our nocturnal survey

Working with experts

What really struck me was how much I learnt about the environment and biodiversity by being on-the-ground with experts that had deep backgrounds in zoology and wildlife conservation. I also appreciated at the beginning how much I did not know. And I recognise that there is still a tremendous amount to learn – the environment and biodiversity is a complex topic.

It’s not all the same and biodiversity is complex

Africa sometimes gets referred to as if it is one country. It’s 54 countries and each country and region has its own specific opportunities and challenges. In Zimbabwe, for example, the elephant population has grown to around 100,000, which is beginning to impact biodiversity through the destruction of trees and the resultant threat to other wildlife and insects that rely on these trees. I also saw first-hand some of the environmental changes – for example, mopane trees that elephants graze on have evolved to grow thorns as a defence against grazing. However, what this means is that the energy the tree uses in growing the thorns results in smaller trees, creating future challenges for food sources. Elephants consume hundreds of pounds of plant matter in a single day. This reinforced to me how complex a topic biodiversity and the environment is.

What’s the real power of renewable energy?

Visiting Zimbabwe has broadened my perspective on the importance of renewable energy to positively impact people’s lives. This often gets lost when we talk about the energy transition. Access to safe drinking water in the UK is something we take for granted. However, in Zimbabwe (and across Africa) boreholes are the key method by which people access drinking water in rural areas. ALERT is installing solar panels in rural communities near Victoria Falls to help pump and heat the water from these boreholes, transforming the access to safe water. Another form of renewable energy is Biomass units providing a renewable energy source to help with heating for cooking. This is generated from organic matter such as manure. Installing these in rural communities lessens the dependency on cutting trees for firewood – trees that wild animals and birds rely on.

Solar panel at a rural school powering and heating water from a borehole. A new school in the process of being built.

Human-wildlife conflict

Another area that ALERT is actively involved in is helping manage human/wildlife conflict. Some of the rural communities we visited live under the threat of lion attacks on their livestock, especially cows. To get round the problem, ALERT works with the communities to provide lights, which are installed in key locations to deter lion attacks. They also paint eyes on the back of cows to act as a deterrent. Education is another part of their important work.

Education and the celebrating the importance of conservation

The team at ALERT are also focused on helping children in rural communities reconnect to the natural environment. Many children have negative views on wildlife from stories in their villages and animal attacks on family farms. ALERT is taking part in an initiative at Lesedi School to give children the opportunity to learn photography through a Photography Club. Victoria Falls is located next to the National Park, which means that there are many job opportunities to work in the wildlife industry – one being through photography. This club will assist the children with great skills for their CV. Through photography, this initiative will also teach children the importance of wildlife conservation.

Helping rural communities

ALERT also work alongside other non-profit organisations. This includes the Jafuta Foundation which focuses on helping humans and animals create and maintain equilibrium between community, wildlife, conservation, education and culture. I visited their hub in Victoria Falls, which supports the local community and rural school children. Some children aged between 8-14 walk up to 6km to visit the hub after school for online learning, introduction to technology (they have a great tech-hub), watch movies and to have fun. We take these things for granted, yet for most rural children, they have never had these experiences. The hub also provides opportunities and skills for the local community – they have the opportunity to learn new skills at the hub’s creative studio, making items such as jewellery from snare traps and clothes.

Skills for the rural community: Making jewellery and clothes.

Ongoing challenges

When I was in Zimbabwe, I also learnt about the challenges in Chizarira National Park, one of the country’s largest national parks. ALERT has been in Chizarira since 2017 to understand the population ecology of lions in the park (numbers, population structure, pride dynamics, movements, associations between prides and interactions with other large predators). Alongside this, ALERT is working with neighbouring rural communities to manage human-wildlife issues. This also includes educating young people through conservation lessons to equip them with a positive mindset towards the conservation of the natural environment and to appreciate the benefits of ecosystem services. However, I learnt that Chizarira’s national park status is under threat and could be reclassified as community land, creating challenges for wild animals living there and increasing human-wildlife conflict.

Put simply, I was humbled and amazed at the passion, focus, knowledge and commitment of everyone I met who was involved in conservation and supporting the community. They are the silent heroes that are focused on making our planet a better place.

I’ll be going back to Africa next year, and the year after that………

And in closing, I’ve captured some photos below to illustrate the beauty of wildlife

By Mike Evans