It is hard to imagine a more beautiful place in the world than Chizarira National Park in Zimbabwe. Sitting atop the Zambezi escarpment, with views across the community lands to Lake Kariba and on to Zambia, Chizarira has over 25 permanent fresh water springs feeding myriad streams and rivers that gouge deep gorges through the sandstone, creating a network of spectacular canyons, pools, waterfalls and caves that make Chizarira so unique.
Until relatively recently, Chizarira was famous for its huge buffalo herds, its thriving elephant population and for having the highest density of black rhinos in southern Africa. All of the rhinos are now gone, and in 2016 the Great Elephant Census identified Chizarira as one of the most badly poached parks on the whole continent: the elephant population was estimated at 749, a reduction of 75% in only 10 years, while buffalo and other species were equally badly affected. We quickly realised that we had to stop the poaching or the park was at risk of ecological collapse.
My friend Mark Hiley and I founded National Park Rescue with explicit aim of identifying those national parks in Africa in the most need of help and trying to rescue them. When we visited Chizarira for the first time in April 2017, what we found was typical of many protected areas across the continent: the rangers were poorly trained, poorly equipped and poorly motivated; the park’s infrastructure was falling apart; and the neighbouring communities were entirely hostile to the park and its staff. What set Chizarira apart from other parks in Africa was the scale of the losses it had suffered, which is why we decided to try and save it.
For many people counter-poaching is all about law enforcement, but for us it’s more than that: it’s about supporting sustainable development, building climate resilience, building capacity, promoting regional security, saving wildlife and – of course – law enforcement, because all these things are intrinsically linked.
On the face of it, we are a counter-poaching organisation who are there to protect a national park and the animals that live in it, but in order to do this we have become the largest local employer, currently employing 31 people from the surrounding communities; we have established a functioning micro-economy between the park and the communities that surround it through our Community Rations Supply scheme, feeding the rangers almost exclusively with fresh produce from the surrounding villages; we have prosecuted and imprisoned career criminals that brought instability to the region and we have increased tourism to the area. All of this is of immediate benefit to the communities and makes the local people see the park as an asset to be protected.
For far too long people have made the mistake of thinking that by funding environmental protection you are automatically eliminating funds from human development, i.e. that environmentalism is zero sum. There has been a slow but steady realisation that human health, wealth and wellbeing are intimately linked to environmental integrity. At the most basic level we need healthy and functioning ecosystems to regulate our climate, provide us with abundant clean water, clean air, protein from meat and fish, pollination services, and all of the other ecosystem services that we get, for free, from a healthy environment. 2019 was the year that the penny dropped on climate change and species extinction. In a rapidly changing world, where environmental issues pose an existential threat to many communities, it is imperative that we put the environment at the heart of international development and development aid.
What we at National Park Rescue are demonstrating, in our own small way, is that poverty alleviation and environmental protection are two sides of the same coin. You could say that we are helping to protect the environment by alleviating poverty, or you could flip that on its head by saying we are helping to alleviate poverty by protecting the environment. Two years after we started our operation, Chizarira is almost unrecognisable. The rangers are better trained, better paid and better motivated; the infrastructure is working; the communities are now enfranchised and receiving tangible benefits from the park and its operations; and last but not least: the wildlife is bouncing back.
Dr Niall McCann, Chizarira National Park, February 2020.