Chief Mayuni is Chief of the Mafwe people in the western area of Zambezi Region. In his palace he spoke to NACSO about how conservation started and took hold in the area. He ends with a plea for vigilance against wildlife crime.
“Wildlife was always valued in our tradition,” stated the Chief. “We needed them in times of drought. They provided skins for clothing. In the past it was the chiefs who had powers over wildlife. If there was a drought, the people would come to the Chief and he would allow for an animal to be shot, perhaps a buffalo. We would say of an area: ‘If there is abundant wildlife it shows that the Chief is doing his work well’.
“People did not poach. If they needed to shoot an animal they would go to the Chief. Poaching began when the South African government took power from the chiefs. During the liberation war, the South African army took wildlife, so the people did too. They would sneak into the wildlife reserve to poach. Those were bad times. The rhinos were taken away from the park, and even shot by the army so that the horns could be sold.
“With independence people expected more rights, but that did not happen immediately. Park rangers were in charge of wildlife, not the chiefs and not the people, who saw no value in wild animals. There was a lot of human-wildlife conflict. People lost their lives to wildlife and some people were shot by park rangers.
“We first heard about the idea of conservancies from IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation), and people were distrustful of the idea. South African rule had made them suspicious of government. There was a perception that whites always thought they knew best. For example, commercial farmers were whites so people did not trust white conservationists.
“At a meeting at Choi Village in 1994, when I was a senior induna [headman], one induna angrily said to the conservationists promoting conservancies: ‘Take your animals and go!’ People did not truly believe that they would be given rights over wildlife.
“But most indunas and other people in the communities understood the conservancy idea and promoted it. They helped to spread information about conservancies. They thought it would perhaps bring jobs and payments to offset losses. For my part, I was hoping that conservancies would bring income and jobs from tourism.
“At first only men were involved in promoting the idea. Here, grass used to be burnt with no benefit. So some of us went to find buyers for thatching grass, and as a result the women saw an advantage in conservation and became engaged. They saw they could make money from thatching grass and crafts. Now both are thriving industries bringing benefits to families.
“In 1996 the first conservancy in the Caprivi Region was formed at Salambala. Now there are 15 in our area. At last our people understand that they can and do have rights over wildlife.
“Our fight now is not against local poachers. Three quarters of all the poaching is from outsiders. Local people are very important in countering wildlife crime. The rangers in the national park cannot know what is happening in the villages scattered around the region. Locals understand the area well, and the wildlife in it.
“Our role now, as chiefs, headmen and elders, is to continue to raise awareness. We must be ever vigilant against wildlife crime, and we need greater conservation awareness so that people leave space for wildlife corridors – after all, Zambezi Region is at the heart of KAZA, the Kavango Zambezi Tranfrontier Conservation Area.”