If It Weren’t For Sport Hunters Zimbabwe’s BVC Wouldn’t Be The Success Story It Is

Kevin Thomas

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Zimbabwe’s international media image is normally one of doom and gloom. Cast that aside though, and there is a shining light in the country’s sustainable wildlife utilisation field. It goes by the name of the Bubye Valley Conservancy, or more simplistically by the acronym BVC. It’s a success story that certainly wouldn’t be were it not for paying sport hunters’. For therein lies the secret to the vast project’s ongoing and sustainable success.

Significant in its achievements has been the establishment of large and flourishing populations of black rhino, elephant, and African lion. This 3,740sq km landmass (in excess of 850,000 acres) is situated in what is termed Zimbabwe’s southern lowveld region, one of the country’s hottest and driest areas. Summer temperatures regularly exceed 40C (104F) and the average recorded rainfall over forty-five years is 347mm (13.6”).

Unsuited to most forms of agricultural practices or non-consumptive ecotourism, and despite the low rainfall, the BVC has an exceedingly high nutrient ecosystem that ably supports large numbers of medium size herbivores. Particularly blue wildebeest and Burchell’s zebra. This in turn means high densities of predators can potentially be sustained.

To look briefly at the BVC’s history; at the turn of the 20th century Lemco (Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company) established an extensive cattle ranching operation on this vast landmass. Most indigenous wildlife species, and because they were deemed to compete with livestock for grazing, coupled to the fact that buffalo and wildebeest had the potential to transmit disease to cattle, were eradicated. Due to predation on cattle too; lion, leopard, and hyena were also heavily persecuted.

Despite the Lemco wildlife eradication program, and as is often the case under similar circumstances, most of the indigenous wildlife species survived in small isolated pockets. However, by the 1990s the resident buffalo, lion, and elephant populations had been completely eradicated. Black and white rhino populations which had occurred in the area historically had disappeared well prior to the establishment of Lemco Ranch.

Crippled by devastating droughts in 1982/83 and again in 1992/93 Lemco Ranch was sold off in 1994 due to it being deemed unsuitable and economically non-viable for cattle ranching. The shareholders who bought the property then established the Bubye Valley Conservancy. The intention being to revert this vast landmass back to wildlife only and after the decision was made an immediate program was implemented to remove all of the internal cattle fencing.

Obviously, this conversion to wildlife from cattle ranching necessitated massive investment. To begin with a 2.1m high double electrified game fence had to be erected surrounding the entire area. The fence follows the 440km boundary (880km for both fences) and cost approximately US$2.1 million to erect, with an annual maintenance cost of US$220,000 a year. During 2014 a further US$350,000 was spent in converting the Malangani section to the same specs as the rest of the BVC game fence.

On the wildlife front, and although a number of residual populations had remained in the aftermath of Lemco, their numbers had to be boosted through re-introductions. Again, at huge cost to the shareholders. Nine well-appointed safari camps were also constructed across the BVC, and the internal road networks improved. These kinds of developments always carry significant annual running and maintenance costs.

Notable annual costs on the BVC are the ongoing anti-poaching program at US$400,000 plus, diesel fuel at US$350,000, wages and salaries at US$1,220,000 (2015), electricity at US$70,000 and safari camp running and maintenance costs at US$850,000. These figures adequately illustrate that in order for wildlife to continue being the primary land use factor on the BVC, a substantial income base is required.

From the outset the BVC shareholders policy has always been that their main intended form of income would be derived from commercial trophy hunting. However, during the initial development phase and as an experiment into non-consumptive ecotourism, the southern Samanyanga section (approximately 80,000 acres) was fenced off and separated from the main, and no hunting was allowed, only photographic safaris. What is normally referred to as a non-consumptive form of tourism. However, by 2002 and for a variety of reasons this experiment had proven non-viable and the partition fence was removed. Once this had happened, the sole form of income for the conservancy was through trophy hunting. A situation that remains unchanged to this day.

As has been well proven; in the African context there is absolutely no way that wildlife conservation will succeed in any form unless you have the support of the surrounding communities. Without this, it is doomed. During the early development stages the BVC's planners recognised this crucial fact, and implemented the highly successful BVC Outreach Program which embraces three surrounding tribal districts; Mwenezi, Maranda and Jopempe. In addition, and through funds donated by the BVC they have established the Mtetengwe Trust in the Beit Bridge district.

In a further unique experiment any poachers arrested for poaching antelope on the BVC appear before a tribal court presided over by the chief within their community, and not before a magistrate, and thus far it is proving highly successful. There is a certain amount of stigma attached to a tribesman appearing before his local tribal court, and he may well become ostracised for upsetting the relationship between the tribal community and the BVC. If the poacher appears before a far off town magistrate the tribal community hear little about the case, if anything at all. A fine paid in valuable livestock is far more of a financial blow than a 12-month prison sentence.

Aside from school infrastructure, clinic construction, essential boreholes being sunk and equipped in tribal areas, and various other assistance programs, the BVC also supplies the neighbouring tribal communities with 45 tons of meat free of charge each year. Because protein in any form is always in short supply in Africa’s tribal areas, this is a huge incentive for the tribal communities to work hand in hand with BVC management.

Income derived from commercial trophy hunting on the BVC has also been directly responsible for the achievement of some extremely meaningful conservation goals. Probably the most important of these is the black rhino story. The continued protection of this endangered species on the BVC by their anti-poaching program, has been made possible by the revenue generated from trophy hunting of lion, elephant, buffalo, and other species (donor funds too, do partially offset these costs).

Black rhino were first introduced onto the BVC in 1998. This population was boosted by the further continual translocation of both black and white rhino from other areas unable to protect their rhino populations, in the face of the rhino poaching escalations facing Zimbabwe and South Africa during the mid-2000s. Because of the ongoing rhino poaching onslaught in Zimbabwe, only the big privately-owned conservancies have been able to maintain positive rhino population growth rates. The most successful of these has been the BVC with an average 8% annual increase.

The BVC hasn’t been immune from this rhino poaching scourge despite having a superbly led, motivated, disciplined, and managed anti-poaching team of 85-armed para-military game scouts. Poaching losses have been incremental since 2013 when they lost 5 rhino. In 2015 the losses rose to 22, it must be remembered though, anti-rhino poaching patrols and constant monitoring on a landmass this size, is a huge and costly exercise.

Gun battles with poachers aren’t unheard of on the BVC and with Zimbabwe’s ‘shoot to kill’ policy towards poachers, trying to poach a rhino on the BVC is indeed a high-risk pastime. In 2010 when I was hunting out of Nengo Camp with Bill Haslett from Pennsylvania, an anti-poaching game scout patrol shot and killed AK47 totting Samuel ‘Big Sam’ Mazhongwe who’d stupidly initiated the contact. At the time he was one of Zimbabwe’s most notorious rhino poachers.

With regards lion on the BVC, during 1999 thirteen lion were re-introduced to the Samanyanga section, and during the same year 4 young males managed to enter the conservancy naturally. In 2002 following the collapse of the Samanyanga ecotourism experiment and with the removal of the partition fence the lion were free to roam across the entire conservancy. This resulted in the lion population increasing significantly, and by 2015 it was estimated through scientific research that the lion population was over 500. These figures make the BVC's wild African lion population the largest in Zimbabwe, and indications are that the conservancy’s lion population has now reached saturation.

Allied to the above, the elephant population on the BVC has now also reached the carrying capacity at 700 and needs to be managed. To date, and to address the skewed sex ratio that exists they have been offering a few bulls each year (10 – 20-year-old bulls that have been breaking into the conservancy) on non-trophy elephant hunts with the requirement being that only solitary animals with tusks of less than 25lbs aside be taken off. Funds from these management hunts have been ploughed straight back into the conservancy and the meat has gone to the surrounding communities.

Despite the high levels of protection afforded to all wildlife species on the BVC, and the moderate annual off take levels via trophy hunting adequately serving to highlight how trophy hunting can be sustainable – provided poaching is controlled – the lion and elephant populations on the BVC do face a slightly worrying future.

The end game for both of these species on the conservancy is one of two likely scenarios; if lion and elephant hunting is severely restricted either through a USFWS listing as endangered, or the banning of trophies into the US makes hunting of both these species undesirable, or impossible for BVC clientele (over 90% are American), then the numbers will have to be reduced drastically by management. They will have absolutely no value to the Conservancy and will be seen as competitive. Elephant have a detrimental effect on habitat, and lion on other species.

If on the other hand, sanity prevails amongst those international players who at times seemingly make some ill-informed decisions regards how Africans should manage their wildlife, the outcome would be a lot more positive. If lion and elephant hunting is allowed to continue with scientifically arrived at sustainable quotas, based on sound ecological assessments and independent monitoring, then both species will remain financially valuable and desirable. Equally important, it would allow the BVC to maintain populations that are available for restocking other areas.

I’ve had the privilege of guiding hunting safaris on the BVC regularly since 1992 when the cattle operation was still being phased out. General Manager Blondie Leatham who has been on the Conservancy since 1987 is backed up by one of the most dedicated wildlife conservation teams in Southern Africa. If one looks at the results of their achievements during the last twenty-two years it is obvious the Bubye Valley Conservancy represents one of the finest examples of wildlife conservation success throughout the whole of Africa, and particularly so for lion, elephant, and black rhino.

Sport-hunters haven’t only ensured the well-being of black rhino, elephant, and lion on the BVC. They can be equally proud in the knowledge that the monies they spend hunting on this bespoke venue, also protects cheetah, painted dog (African wild dog), and pangolin. In a nutshell trophy hunter spending has created a conservation umbrella under which all of the above species can continue to thrive and expand, let’s hope it will continue.

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Hank2211

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Thanks for posting. I will be hunting there at the end of September - my 6th trip to Zim, I think, but my first to BVC. Looking forward to doing my bit!
 

375 Ruger Fan

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Excellent article! The BVC is an amazing place.
 

Kevin Thomas

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Thanks for posting. I will be hunting there at the end of September - my 6th trip to Zim, I think, but my first to BVC. Looking forward to doing my bit!
You'll have a great safari - it's a hunt venue light years ahead of most, in all aspects. Good luck & enjoy.
 

ianevans

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Superb am saving hard already
 

tarbe

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Kevin - thanks for sharing this.

The BVC deserves a look by all who are planning to hunt wild Africa, for all the reasons detailed above.

I will be hunting Nengo exactly one year from now. I can't wait!!


Tim
 

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Excellent write up.
In 2013, my first safari was in the BVC hunting out of Dyers Camp. I took the buffalo in my avatar there along with ten head of PG. During our 14 days there we saw 17 lions, numerous elephant, white and black rhino and herds of plains game. It was incredible.
One afternoon we came upon a work party building a rhino loading chute.
Additionally, we often encountered rhino patrols and several wildlife biology teams.
Poaching: One evening, we were driving among some hills and the game scout spotted three people on a distant hill and radioed it in to HQ. As it was almost dusk, a team couldn't be sent out to investigate. Until morning. We found out the next night that a team hunted down the poachers and they were now "lion food". (We need to adopt this policy in the USA)
 

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Thanks for posting. I will be hunting there at the end of September - my 6th trip to Zim, I think, but my first to BVC. Looking forward to doing my bit!
Who you hunting with Hank?
 

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Kevin - thanks for sharing this.

The BVC deserves a look by all who are planning to hunt wild Africa, for all the reasons detailed above.

I will be hunting Nengo exactly one year from now. I can't wait!!


Tim
Who you hunting with Tim?
 

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Thanks for posting. I will be hunting there at the end of September - my 6th trip to Zim, I think, but my first to BVC. Looking forward to doing my bit!

They let you out of school!

A nice Lion replacement sounds like a good plan.
 

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Another fine article Kevin! Thank You!
 

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Who you hunting with Hank?
Touch Africa Safaris. Run by my old Ph and outfitter Dean Stobbs and Johnathan Collett (whose brother owns one of the best taxidermy studios in Zim in my experience). Hunting out of Lamulas camp.

This will be a recreational hunt. I will try for Sharpe’s Grysbok, which I need for the tiny ten, and African wild cat, which I need for the cats. Other than that, it’s just having fun, shooting whatever crosses my path.
 

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They let you out of school!

A nice Lion replacement sounds like a good plan.
I am all done! Leaving Thursday. Get rid of the smoke!
 

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Thanks for posting. I will be hunting there at the end of September - my 6th trip to Zim, I think, but my first to BVC. Looking forward to doing my bit!
Enjoy your hunt. It is an incredible place.
 

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MarkCZ

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Great article, don't suppose the anti,s would read it. But then their aim is to stop folks hunting and not to preserve wildlife.
Markcz
 

Kevin Thomas

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Who you hunting with Tim?
Nengo is an awesome camp, not too big and great for 1 or 2 hunters. It is in a lovely setting facing north towards Towla mountain, a BVC landmark and the highest feature on the conservancy. There's a small stream in front of the camp that is seasonal and game constantly comes and goes. You'll have a great time.

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