By Jeffrey Moyo
As if maddened by a fresh wound on its head, a huge black bull paced to and fro in a vacant field at one of the rural homes in Chikandakuvi, a village about 60 kilometers north of the Zimbabwean town of Hwange.
The bull’s owner tiptoed closer to the beast in a desperate bid to apply some herbs to stop the wound from getting infected.
“There’s a stray lion here which keeps attacking cattle and so many people have lost their livestock to the lion,” said Ndabezinhle Sibanda, the bull’s owner.
“My bull was just lucky that it only ended with this wound after villagers intervened.”
A stone’s throw from Sibanda’s home, 73-year-old Khethiwe Nyembezi was busy picking at the severed heads and legs and remaining ribs belonging to her three cows, freshly slain by a stray lion.
In her field about a kilometer from her homestead lay hides from Nyembezi’s cows, with giant vultures flocking in the nearby bushes eager to prey on the still-fresh flesh.
“For three days in a row, I lost three cows to a stray lion. Some say the lion came from Hwange National Park, while others say it came from some local safari area. The cows I lost were my sources of income,” she said.
Several Western Zimbabwe villagers here gave chilling testimony of how they lost their cattle to lions, with some telling how they narrowly escaped with their lives.
“Last year when I was herding cattle, a lion just came out of nowhere in the bush and started chasing after one of my cows,” said Melusi Ndlovu, 27, a local herder.
“I tried to scare it away, but it charged at me, and with its paws, scratched the back of my head before some nearby herd boys emerged with barking dogs who scared the lion off into the bush. I almost died that day.”
- ‘Our lives in are danger’
Villagers in this Southern African nation say despite the threat the lions pose to their livestock, national parks and wildlife authorities here are doing nothing to help them, as stray lions roam freely, and it takes park officials too much time to round them up.
“Our lives are in danger. We can’t kill the lions even if we see them attacking our livestock because the law doesn’t let us; if you do it they put you in jail,” said Ezra Ncube, 37, a local villager.
“But if our cows are eaten by lions, no one goes to jail and nobody even bothers to compensate us, yet the lions stray from parks and some private safaris.”
But Lovemore Sibanda of the Hwange Oxford Lion Research Project, also a Zoology PhD candidate at Oxford University, struck a different tone.
“Every living creature has the right to exist,” he said. “The purpose of mitigation projects is to avoid livestock predation from happening in the first place. We give out protective fences to locals, and these have proved very effective in preventing lions killing livestock. My view is that we should all aim to prevent direct contact between lions and livestock happening in the first place as far as possible.”
While conservationists like Sibanda preach about the safeguarding of lion species, many rangers like Hwange-based Maxwell Siziba see the population rising since 2015, when Cecil, a 13-year-old lion and park attraction, was killed by an American big game hunter, sparking international outrage.
“You would realize that after the killing of Cecil the Lion, the number of trophy hunters here has been going down because Western countries’ protest of the killing of Cecil was so loud, and as a result, the number of lions around parks and private conservancies here has been growing,” Siziba said.
According to the Hwange Lion Research Project, in western Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park alone, there are approximately 500 lions, with the southern Bubye Valley Conservancy also touted to have more than 500, a population officials there said is going beyond their control, due to Cecil’s murder leading to fewer visits by trophy hunters.
“I wish we could give away about 200 of our lions away to ease the overpopulation. If anyone knows of a suitable habitat for them where they will not land up in human conflict, or in wildlife areas where they will not be beaten up because of existing prides, please let us know and help us raise the money to move them,” Blondie Leathem, general manager of Bubye Valley Conservancy, told Britain’s The Telegraph in February 2016.
With lions straying and wreaking havoc around Hwange and other parts of Zimbabwe, some former safari owners like Allan Elliot, who were stripped of their safari land by the Zimbabwean government at the height of land seizures from white commercial farmers around 2000, feel there should be compensation to people who lose their livestock to stray lions.
Elliot’s remarks followed the loss to one of the community members, Ralph Ncube, of three head of cattle to stray lions in a single night in Hwange’s Dete area.
Elliot, who owned Touch the Wild Safari before it was seized from him, said, “Of course Ncube should be compensated. I love people and lions. All lions living outside of parks will be eliminated unless conservationists are prepared to put their hands in their pockets. It's all so obvious.”
-'No one to blame'
But to the Hwange Lion Research Project, no one can be blamed for the lions that are killing people’s livestock here.
“No one in particular is to blame because this is a perfect example of a complex mosaic of responsibilities,” said Sibanda of the Hwange Oxford University Lion research project.
“The animals don't know what they are doing, and our research has shown that lions try and avoid humans and human settlements at all costs! National Parks and CAMPFIRE and we researchers, we are doing our very best to promote coexistence between people and wildlife. The communities too are doing their level best to protect their livestock.
CAMPFIRE refers to the Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources, a Zimbabwean community-based natural resource management program.
To many conservationists like Brent Stapelkamp in Hwange, the plight faced by stray lions in Zimbabwe has been little known until recently.
“I think that the world woke up to the plight of wild lions because of the attention Cecil's story brought.
“I think that his death was a catalyst for several key pieces of legislation passed abroad, with more to come,” he added.
Along these lines, in February 2015 -- a few months before Cecil’s death -- Australia banned the import of lion body parts to prevent hunters from bringing home hunting trophies.
But that did not save Zimbabwe’s villagers from becoming victims to the now growing population of lions.
“We’re not safe; our cattle aren’t safe; lions are in our midst and we live in fear,” said Ndabezinhle Sibanda, a villager in Hwange’s village of Chikandakuvi.