Inside a stockade of tall wooden stakes, cattle are waiting to be let out for the day. Golden sunlight stutters through the acacia trees and lights up the homestead beyond, a large, bare-earth courtyard containing five neatly thatched mud-walled buildings.
Hygiene Moyo, 75, and her teenage granddaughter Lucricia live here, just outside one of Zimbabwe’s largest and most important national parks, Hwange. They take me to greet their favourite animal, Booster the bull, who comes trotting across the enclosure when called, pushing his nose forward to be scratched. Ten new calves mill around in a separate inner stockade, eagerly waiting to be reunited with their mothers. Not all of the herd, however, are present. Since the start of the year three cows have been killed by hyenas.
“They attack during the day,” says Hygiene. “The dogs sometimes drive them away, but there are so many of them now.” It isn’t the only danger: lions and elephants stroll through the isolated village of Ziga at night, and the latter regularly raid Hygiene’s maize crop, her main source of food.
These are the perils of living in an area called Tsholotsho, community land that is alongside the national park. It is a vast region of open woodland, about 70 miles north-west of the city of Bulawayo, and which is home to lots of hyenas, as well as about 45,000 elephants. Surprisingly, however, the community land on which Hygiene lives is now the setting for an ambitious rhino reintroduction project and – even rarer than the rhino itself – the programme has been instigated and welcomed by local people.
The day before I visited Hygiene’s homestead, I accompanied Kusasa and Thuza, two male rhinos, on an epic journey across Africa to be released into a fenced reserve. With this duo, Tsholotsho and Hwange become home to all of the continent’s “big five” animals (lion, leopard, buffalo and elephant are the others).
In terms of preserving African wildlife, Hwange is vital. This is not only because the elephant population is one of the largest in Africa but because the 14,600 km2 park is critical in what is known as Kaza, the Kavango Zambezi Conservation Area. It is an area twice the size of the UK, connecting the lush low veld on the Mozambique-Zimbabwe border across the continent to the deserts of Namibia. Without it, the long-term future of large mammals like elephants and lions would be bleak: restricted to increasingly isolated pockets of land, unable to migrate during droughts or access the genetic diversity of other areas. But without community cooperation none of this is going to be possible, and Tsholotsho holds a vital geographic position.
In Ziga tourists are rarely seen, though the advantages of their presence are easy to find. I walk with the cows to the solar pump that provides water – a pump installed and maintained by tourist money. All around, cattle are streaming in, running in some cases, eager to get a drink.
The water pump is only one benefit tourism has brought: the school has books, dinners and accommodation, all provided through cooperation with a local safari company. “If the rhino brings benefits,” village headman Andrew Ncube says, “they can stay.” That kind of attitude represents a major shift in local opinion, a shift that has not happened by accident.
This change is a story that begins in 1996 when game ranger Mark “Butch” Butcher and social worker Njambulo Zondo decided to combine their efforts. Butch had a successful safari business, but could see that community cooperation was essential to preserving wildlife; Zondo had spent years in rural development and wanted to use tourism to boost local services in an area with overwhelming unemployment and social problems. Since then, their achievements are staggering: dozens of school classrooms and teachers’ houses built, clean water brought to more than 100,000 people and their animals, 28,000 books shipped in, as well as life-changing dental and eye treatment through mobile clinics.
They built Camelthorn Lodge, a safari lodge on community land, run by locals, and have trained dozens of guides, hotel staff, logistical support crew – even sending several to university (the first from the area). All this work has also enriched the tourist experience and led to school visits, cookery and weaving classes, and plans for a homestay programme.
The rhino reintroduction, however, is a huge leap in the dark. Until about two decades ago, tourists were seen by most villagers in a similar light to colonial hunters: an unfortunate blight that visited the region, demanding that wild animals were solely theirs while giving back almost nothing. Subsistence farmers saw elephants merely as a pest that trampled crops, a plague that could kick you to the brink of starvation. Poachers, on the other hand, were Robin Hood heroes. Butch and Zondo’s scheme, though, has eroded those deeply held beliefs. There was also a new generation coming up, less obsessed with cattle herd size as the sole measure of success in life, and able to see a bigger picture.
Then, in 2016, an elderly village headman, Baba Mvelo, dropped a bombshell. He wanted rhinos to return before he died. White rhinos had been wiped out by hunters before the first world war, then again by poachers in 2004. But Baba Mvelo was adamant: he wanted them back. With his support, the idea gained momentum.
There were obstacles. Rhino poaching is not headline news these days, but it has not gone away. Rather, it has become a slick operation backed by money from wealthy clients in south-east Asia. Defending a rhino sanctuary is now so expensive that few people can afford to do it. Butch and Zondo knew a few poachers. Butch had put several in prison himself, while Zondo had seen the damage incarceration could do to families. They came up with a plan: convince the best local wildlife trackers, most of them ex-poachers, to have training, then join them up with a squad of wildlife rangers, and you would have the experts on your side, along with men who knew how poachers worked. Pay them well, with salaries derived from the tourist money that rhinos bring, and they would be reliable. The money, trickling down into the community, would convince waverers. They called the squad the Cobras.
On the first morning that the two freshly transported rhinos spend in their new home in Tsholotsho, I visit the Cobra’s base. It’s next to the electric fence behind which the two rhinos are roaming. The animals appear content and have each done a poo, a cause for celebration among the transportation experts who brought them.
I go on patrol with Sergeant Cedric Moyo and Private Nyoni Qabukani, picking our way through the acacia trees and buffalo thorn. Both men are relaxed and yet alert, missing nothing. Nyoni points out faint marks in the dust. “Bushbuck were here yesterday evening,” he says. His story is typical of a Cobra ranger. As a young man he had been unemployed and responsible for a large extended family. “When the drought came in 2002, we had nothing to eat. Elephants trampled all our crops. Poaching was my only hope to feed everyone.”
Nyoni quickly became adept in the most perilous of poaching activities: spearing buffalo. “I’d chase the buffalo herd until they turned and charged, then use a tree for cover and spear one as it came past.” It didn’t always go to plan: once he was gored and has the scars.
His fame spread, but one day the police raided his homestead and he was arrested, and spent 16 months in prison. When he came out, he struggled to find a job. “My reputation as a poacher and a thief was itself like a prison,” he says. “But then the Cobras gave me the key to escape.” Now he has a regular salary, the pride of being part of an elite unit and the knowledge that his past reputation is helping deter poachers. Schoolkids in the area now play at being Cobras: boys and girls dream of becoming one. Butch and Zondo have begun to plan a female force.
This is a new kind of safari, one not based on wealthy foreigners enjoying an apparent African wildlife idyll, a wilderness that is actually a carefully crafted fiction with resentful locals kept out of sight. Instead, at Tsholotsho-Hwange, visitors can see the whole picture, chat to the ex-poacher turned gamekeeper, or to the grandmother who just lost a cow to hyenas. At the same time, there are genuine wildlife experiences.
One evening, with guide Dabs, I go deep into the park to a sunken hide that looks out over a waterhole. As the sun dips low, elephants come down to drink, a young bull towering over our hidden position. They are followed by zebra. Then when all the other animals have gone, one lone elderly buffalo plods forward. He looks almost blind and grey hairs fleck his head, but he is alive. “That’s one that Nyoni missed,” whispers Dabs. “And now he’s safe – from poachers at least.”
Imvelo Safaris has a three-night stay in and around Tsholotsho/Hwange from about £295 a night, including local transfers, all meals, guides and safaris. Two-hour walking safaris with the new rhinos cost £150. All fees go to support the Cobra wildlife rangers and the rhino reintroduction project. Updates on the rhinos’ progress can be found at hwangecommunityrhino.com. Holiday Extras provided medical and travel insurance, transfers, parking and lounge access