Safeguarding the future of the Gonarezhou National Park

Around eight years ago, a landmark conservation project was launched in Zimbabwe. It was marked by the signing of a memorandum of understanding between The Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to establish a partnership for the management of Gonarezhou National Park. While this took place in 2007, it was updated in 2010, valid for a further 10 years.

At the time, Zimbabwe was going through a very challenging period, and FZS was able to offer technical and financial support to the park in order for it to fulfil its mandate of conserving wildlife and habitats as a vital component of Zimbabwe’s heritage.

The Gonarezhou Conservation Project (GCP) was born…

Planning

In order for the GCP to have a meaningful impact, the park needed to be supported at all levels. One of the project’s first activities was the development of a General Management Plan. The process involved all key stakeholders, and allowed for the development of a shared goal and vision for the park’s future. It has served as a roadmap for the project’s activities ever since.

Park security

Despite the broad-based approach of the project, an early and ongoing focus has been to ensure that the park’s security staff has the means to fulfil their objective of protecting the park’s wildlife. This support ranges from provision of vital patrol equipment, establishment of a comprehensive radio communications network, vehicles, monthly patrol rations and fuel, and ranger training. A further component is the technical input from FZS staff into strengthening management systems to ensure effective and efficient use of resources, which includes manpower, to achieve maximum conservation impact.

With the threat of ivory poaching ever growing, and the park being particularly vulnerable due to its long boundary with Mozambique and high elephant population, much attention has been focused on increasing security along this vulnerable stretch over the last two years. Permanent ranger pickets have been built, the border road has been cleared and additional rangers recruited and trained – with the emphasis on employing staff from communities in close proximity to the Gonarezhou.

A vital, but often overlooked aspect of park management is the role that the vehicle workshop plays. In many ways it is at the heart of park operations, and is an absolute crucial component of FZS support to Gonarezhou. Keeping vehicles on the road under difficult conditions, servicing water pumps, carrying out fence maintenance and constructing anything from radio masts to water bowsers are all key functions.

Community relations

The park is, for the most part, surrounded by communal lands and building positive relationships and partnerships with communities is a crucial aspect of working towards a more integrated conservation vision for the wider area; one that can also contribute to improved livelihoods in a region plagued by chronic food insecurity. The project supports a conservation education project, reaching 39 schools in a 10 km radius of the park. In February this year a newly refurbished, dedicated education vehicle was presented to the traditional leaders and other stakeholders at a ceremony at Chipinda Pools. The vehicle serves as a mobile books and video library, and conveys a conservation message through the medium of education tools and equipment that supports the existing school curriculum.

A programme of supervised harvesting of thatching grass by communities in the northern section of Gonarezhou was introduced in 2012, whilst also supporting the formation of the Tiyeselani Woman’s Association. This group is made up of some of the most disadvantaged women, widows and divorcees from local communities adjacent the park. They comb and process the cut grass which brings them a cash income, making a significant difference in their lives with a number already able to upgrade their previous modest dwelling to brick homes, or to pay for school fees.

Infrastructure maintenance and development

Years of low investment in all aspects of park management also meant that much of the park’s road network was in a poor state when the project started. It was evident that significant resources would have to be invested into upgrading and expanding the road network, both to ensure increased management effectiveness, as well as supporting tourism development. Each year, more than 500 km of roads are reopened after the rainy season, and more intensive repairs undertaken on selected sections. The roads also play an important function with regards to serving as firebreaks, giving an important ecological function to the roads programme as well.

Firebreaks as seen from the air.

Firebreaks as seen from the air.

Making a firebreak.

Making a firebreak.

 

Staff welfare is critical and upgrading of water supply systems and housing, and constructing additional accommodation has all formed part of project activities over the years.

Tourism

Although not an early focus for the project, it soon became clear that some support for the development and improvement of the tourism product offered by Gonarezhou was vital. Not only would it help to make the park more financially sustainable but, ensuring that Gonarezhou was valued by as wide a constituency as possible would add to its regional and global conservation status and long-term survival. A tourism plan was developed as part of the GMP, with an emphasis on maintaining the park’s exceptional wilderness values as one of its key components. Yet, it was also recognised that additional facilities, roads and support services would need to be developed. In addition to the upgrading of the roads, the project has also been renovating tourism camping sites and signage, developed a comprehensive tourism map and built a self-catering tented camp in the north of the park.

Monitoring and evaluation

It is critical for any conservation project to periodically take stock of the actual impact that its actions is achieving on the ground. It is possible to undertake all of the actions outlined in this article, and still not be achieve one’s conservation objectives. Monitoring and evaluation of key indicators are vital to gauge that one is moving in the right direction, and to give the necessary feedback that can then be incorporated into further management action. A combination of regular aerial surveys, predator spoor surveys and a comprehensive baseline vegetation survey all forms part of the monitoring toolkit employed by GCP.

Another important component is ranger-based monitoring. This is a process by which data collected in the field by rangers are incorporated into the management cycle. On patrol the rangers regularly record their positions on GPS units with any observations, be it illegal activities or important wildlife sightings. This data is captured on patrol forms which are entered into a database back at base. FZS was one of the founding partners of the SMART consortium, which is a group of conservation organisations that joined together to develop a software tool that feeds into park management.

A FZS plane supports the deployment of rangers.

A FZS plane supports the deployment of rangers.

SMART is a powerful database with inbuilt mapping and analytical functions, but at the same time it is simple to use and can be set up to produce standard reports with maps and query outputs that feeds directly into the park’s adaptive management cycle, graphically illustrating patrol coverage and identifying poaching hotspots. A further advantage is that it can play an important role in motivation by being able to track individual staff performance over a given time period, and it gives rangers the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience more directly with management.

The way forward

The project has achieved many of the goals originally set out, but much remains to be done. One ambition is to reintroduce rhinos to the park – Gonarezhou has the dubious distinction of being an area where black rhino has twice become extinct. Restoring these endangered animals and creating a safe haven for them is an ongoing goal.

As part of achieving this vision FZS and ZPWMA have been in the process of establishing a ‘Gonarezhou Trust’ – a new management model for the park which would allow for greater financial and ecological sustainability in the long-term. This will form an exciting next step for the future of this conservation partnership.