• Kev Thomas Writes

Zimbabwe's CAMPFIRE Program

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

What does Zimbabwe's CAMPFIRE Program stand for?

Communal Area Management Program For Indigenous Resources

CAMPFIRE first came into being back in 1989. It was a concept implemented by the Zimbabwean government, and was based on community led projects utilising their wildlife, and other natural resources on a sustainable yield basis. Many of Zimbabwe’s rural communal areas are arid, and although populated, totally unsuitable for most types of agricultural enterprise. To compensate for this, CAMPFIRE allows the rural tribal communities to benefit directly from their wildlife.

The program is managed by the RDCs (Rural District Councils) who in conjunction with the wildlife authority's draw up and issue the relevant contracts and tenders to safari operators. These tenders may incorporate both ecotourism (non-consumptive) and safari hunting (consumptive). Each Rural District Council is responsible for their particular 'ward' or district. The whole intention behind the project was to invest in the tribal communities a sense of ownership in their wildlife resources. And it was inculcated in these communities the need to protect their wildlife because it was an important income earner for their respective communities, but only if managed wisely, and on a scientifically based sustainable basis.

Zimbabwe introduced and implemented their CAMPFIRE program across 36 of Zimbabwe's 57 rural districts. During the period 1989 - 2001, CAMPFIRE generated over US$20 million which was disbursed to the various rural communities involved. Of this, 89% was generated through safari hunting. Interestingly too, and within the same time frame, 37 of the districts with authority to market their wildlife as per the program's guidelines, generated 97% of the overall CAMPFIRE earnings.

Above: A typical Zimbabwean scenario inside many tribal hamlets across the CAMPFIRE areas.

The aforementioned figures illustrate how a community's wildlife resources have a value, and are a viable entity to conserve. CAMPFIRE also encouraged the various communities to police and protect their wildlife, and by doing so hopefully help bring an end to uncontrolled subsistence poaching. Obviously, the main source of revenue in these remote rural areas where no form of ecotourism is taking place, comes from elephant being hunted, and this includes trophy elephant bulls, and short duration tuskless elephant cow hunts. In addition, and because crop raiding elephant can be problematic on a seasonal basis, PAC hunts are also periodically offered. This means the culprit(s) wreaking havoc on a community's crops are shot. On a PAC hunt, if a crop raiding elephant is being hunted, the paying client and the Professional Hunter are obligated to make every effort to shoot the specific elephant doing the damage, and not try to be selective by way of trophy quality.

Above: Crop raiding elephant provided CAMPFIRE communities with much needed protein, and important revenue.

Although the benefits derived from the CAMPFIRE program obviously vary across the different regions and districts, the RDCs tend to allocate 40-60% of generated revenue to wards. This could be either through direct benefits, or through the funding of projects. The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) estimated households participating in CAMPFIRE increased their incomes by 15-25%.

The various communities also benefit through community development exercises and these could be projects like classroom or school construction, clinics, road improvement, grinding mill construction etc. Employment opportunities are also of benefit to the communities in that safari operators need camp staff by way of chefs, chalet attendants, waiters etc and on the hunting side trackers and skinners, most of which are drawn from the local community.

In some cases where hunting isn't a viable proposition, and for whatever reason, the community has diversified into ecotourism. A good example of this is Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge ( in Zimbabwe's south eastern corner on the Save River. This enterprise is of direct benefit to the Mahenye community and Zimbabwean conservationist Clive Stockil was the driving force behind its original inception.

Above: Shangaan poachers arrested in the Gonarezhou in 1968, and well prior to Zimbabwe's independence.

I saw service as a young neophyte cadet game ranger in the Gonarezhou back in 1968, and the local Shangaan tribe who dwelt along the east bank of the Save River (in pre independent Zimbabwe it was called the Sabi River) were an absolute thorn in our sides, because of their poaching forays into the Gonarezhou. The Shangaan tribesmen of that era were excellent hunters, and within their remote environs lived in total harmony with nature. Their poaching forays were partially due to the many grievances they had with the government of the day, over their ancestral land, from which they'd been forcefully removed, to make way for the National Park. Under the old pre-independent dispensation too, the tribal people surrounding the Gonarezhou derived absolutely no tangible benefit from the park.

With the implementation of CAMPFIRE at Mahenye's this all changed, and the figures speak for themselves. After the first school had been built from revenue accrued through tourism, annual poaching arrests dwindled to 9 from what was usually about 90. Clive Stockil puts it into perspective when he says, “If you are a conservationist, your problem is all about space, so deal with human pressures first. CAMPFIRE has turned conflict into cooperation and everyone has benefited. The community is happy, the parks are happy and the animals are happy. Everyone wins. ” In 2013 Clive Stockil was fittingly awarded the Prince William Award for Conservation.

Anti-hunters often insist ecotourism is the best way forward for wildlife conservation. Using successful enterprises like Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge & the Imvelo Lodges portfolio ( leads them to believe other enterprises of a similar nature would be equally successful across CAMPFIRE areas where hunting safaris are currently conducted, Unfortunately this isn't the case. and as an example as to why these photographic safari enterprises are a success I'll use Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge as an example:

  • Geographical locality, situated on the Save River's east bank with easy access to the renown Gonarezhou National Park.

  • The Gonarezhou is a renown big game Eden.

  • Guided tours take place into the park.

  • Stunning scenic beauty.

  • Angling.

  • Cultural tours amongst the Shangaan tribal community at Mahenye's.

  • Easily accessible by 4x4 to regional tourists from South Africa, and from Buffalo Range Airport.

Tour group activities aside from mere game viewing are an essential for the success of photographic safaris to succeed, and geographical location is just as important. All of the Imvelo Safari Lodges are also ideally situated from a geographical perspective, where tourists have access to;

  • Excellent big game viewing.

  • Stunning scenery.

  • Hwange National Park

  • Zambezi River.

  • Angling & canoeing.

  • Whitewater rafting.

  • Access to Victoria Falls.

  • Cultural tours.

  • Ability to move between different lodges comfortably by vehicle or air charter.

  • Ease of arrival and departure for international clientele by way of Victoria Falls, or Bulawayo Airports.

Above: Imvelo Safaris Gorges Lodge set above the Zambezi River's Batoka Gorge. Geographically situated within a tribal community, the lodge is ideally placed for access to Victoria Falls and surrounds.

Above: Tourists from the US who I was guiding, and who were staying at Umvelo Safaris Gorges Lodge visit a local school during a cultural tour. Activities such as this are an important aspect of ecotourism.

What of the CAMPFIRE hunting programs in tribal areas, are they working?

Although I definitely feel changes for the worse have occurred over the last decade across many of the CAMPFIRE areas in Zimbabwe, it isn't all doom and gloom. Since the inception of CAMPFIRE elephant numbers have increased, with buffalo numbers either remaining stable or decreasing slightly. Habitat loss has slowed, and in some areas actually improved. In the period 1980 to 2000, wildlife management as a percentage of land usage increased by 21%. One area I'd contest, and this is because of first hand experience, is the question of decreased poaching activity. The theory being that because the RDCs have an incentive to maintain revenue streams, hunting laws are heavily enforced and instances of illegal poaching curtailed. This may have been the case for a number of years following the inception of CAMPFIRE, however, and as things currently stand in Zimbabwe, I don't think it pertains to all of the areas. And particularly so now in the dire situation most rural Zimbabweans find themselves caught up in. High unemployment, and extreme poverty. A number of active professional hunters colleagues I've spoken to in Zimbabwe, are of the opinion the CAMPFIRE program in some areas has lost momentum and is failing. One area still benefiting from a well organised and proactive anti-poaching program is the Dande, where the brainchild of PH and safari operator Buzz Charlton's Dande Anti-Poaching Unit is one of the Zambezi Valley's most successful private-sector conservation enforcement initiatives.

Above: A hunting safari camp in Zimbabwe's remote Gokwe North, on the Ume River.

Zimbabwe's CAMPFIRE has certainly enabled individual communities to experience first hand how wildlife conservation can benefit their community, and it's also brought with it a more positive attitude towards wildlife protection. However, during the early stages of CAMPFIRE villagers were inclined to be intolerant of poachers within their communities and report them. Sadly, in many of the CAMPFIRE areas this no longer seems to be the case, and in my experience poaching in some areas is once more rampant. In the Gokwe North area on the Ume River, poaching activity wasn't even being conducted clandestinely during a few safaris I've guided there. Poachers spoor entering and departing the area along the Ume River was evident on a daily basis.

Above: Poachers spoor entering and exiting a hunting area in Gokwe North.

If for any reason, hunting safari bookings tail off or cease altogether due to instability or poor governance, protection of wildlife by local communities loses importance. Wildlife has to be seen to be earning, in other words paying its way, or it's doomed. A case of use it or lose it. As soon as revenue generation declines through a decrease in tourism, incidents of poaching increase. Unfortunately, misguided anti-hunting groups don't help any by pressurising governments to ban trophy importation. In the aftermath of Zimbabwe's economic downturn in 2000, much of which was brought about by their ill thought out land invasions, other negative aspects also began to creep into the CAMPFIRE programs. These in turn led to grievances by the effected communities, and some of their grievances were;

  • Employment opportunities being captured by friends and relatives of CAMPFIRE officials.

  • RDCs retaining an increasing percentage of accrued revenues, and ignoring community concerns.

  • In certain areas, and after community projects have been initiated they aren't sustained.

  • Concerns that due to the loss of revenue because of a downturn in safari bookings, monies earned don't amount to what could've been earned from agricultural enterprises.

  • In the face of increasing human/wildlife conflict villagers have also expressed concern that wildlife protection takes precedence over their own safety.

  • In some CAMPFIRE wards people are forbidden settlement expansion or the use of natural resources, such as cutting timber for home construction, or access to more fertile land for cropping.

Above: A rather under equipped RDC anti-poaching game scout in Gokwe North. It hardly makes sense that they're carrying virtually obsolete weaponry against poachers armed with AK-47s.

Probably the most important factor the anti-hunters fail to understand is that the areas where hunting is taking place under CAMPFIRE are totally unsuited to any form of ecotourism. Careful research has taken place before any hunting program has been implemented. If there was the slightest chance of an area being suitable for ecotourism rather than hunting, Zimbabwean tourist entrepreneurs would've capitalised on it. Surely those who are so vehemently anti-hunting, should pause for a moment during their vitriol and place themselves in the unenviable situation so many poverty ridden Zimbabweans find themselves in. And through no fault of their own.

Above: Perhaps those who are so opposed to hunting safaris should place themselves in the position of the young girl in the photo. I guarantee her perception of an elephant being hunted will be the diametric opposite to those strident critics of hunting who live in luxury in the capitals of the world.

Where she lives with her unemployed parents and her siblings, there is absolutely nothing that lends itself to any form of ecotourism. This area of Gokwe North is an arid, unforgiving part of Zimbabwe. During the rainy season malaria is endemic, the heat oppressive, and what meagre crops these destitute tribal people manage to grow, are invariably destroyed by elephant. To them, a hunting safari operator is their saviour, who in their time of need, and on a seasonal basis provides the following:

  • Employment for camp staff and hunting crew, invariably drawn from their villages.

  • Protection of their crops.

  • Much needed protein.

  • The provision of transport if medical emergencies arise.

Above: Gokwe North in Zimbabwe is a remote and arid area with few attractions for any type of ecotourism.

Unfortunately those who make the most noise about the need to stop hunting, and who call for a ban on the importation of trophies, are driven by misguided emotion and little else. Africa should be left to make its own choices on land usage, without interference by those who live 10,000 miles away, and have absolutely no understanding of the dynamics involved.

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