Raphael Ncube, a haggard man in his late fifties, stares at the remains of two of his cows. They were killed by stray lions in the Hwange district in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland North Province. Other villagers speak in hushed tones as they look at the carcasses.
Ncube has a herd of about 70 cattle. He keeps them in his kraal. Villagers say that lions scared the cattle inside, until three cows jumped out. The lions killed them.
These things happen in Hwange. “Seeing our cattle being killed by lions has become common,” says Jimmy Dube, one of the villagers. He feels helpless. “We can’t do anything against the lions because, if we kill them, we fear to be arrested.” Killing lions is illegal since they belong to a protected species. “We do not want to end up in jail,” adds another cattle owner.
Conservationists insist that lions must be protected. The Zoological Department of Oxford University is running a lion research project in Hwange. Lovemore Sibanda, a PhD candidate who takes part in the project, says: “My view is that we should aim to prevent direct contact between lions and livestock as far as possible.”
That is easier said than done. Figures from the Ministry of Environment indicate that more than 600 cattle were killed by stray lions countrywide in 2016. Things may get worse, since rangers report that the lion population is growing fast.
There are approximately 500 lions in Hwange National Park today, according to the research project, and another 500 live in the Bubey Valley Conservancy. The lion population is becoming hard to control. According to the researchers, no one can be blamed for stray lions killing livestock. “The animals don’t know what they are doing,” Sibanda, the zoologist says. “Our research has shown, moreover, that lions try to avoid humans and human settlements.”
Such statements do not satisfy the villagers. They want to hold someone accountable, and they ask: “Who is going to pay for our losses?”
Jeffrey Moyo is a journalist and lives in Harare, Zimbabwe.