Clouds of black dust ascend into the air each time a heavyweight truck pulls in or out of the roadside parking area next to the entrance of Zambezi Gas and Coal Mine. Less than a kilometer from here, Makomo Resources – another coal mine – is established. As one drives further up the same road, a right turn emerges leading to Sinamatella Game Park, a part of Hwange National Park. Sinamatella Camp is a large area of land set aside as a protected zone for wild animals.

A section of Hwange Colliery Company Limited

Not far away, the road to Shangano village is certainly full of visions of a suffering nature. On one end, industrial machinery digs the earth for fossil fuel that has become the country’s main source of energy for national grid electricity. On the other, parched up lands endure famine and yearn for a timely quench of summer rains. Soon after crossing a small bridge that runs over Shangano’s dried up water stream, one cannot miss the effects of drought amidst the sparsely placed huts.

In one of the shelters sits 81-year-old Grace Tshuma who is yet to come to terms with how she ended up a widow a few weeks ago after decades of happy union at this homestead. When narrating the ordeal of a fateful September night when her husband Siachumbi Mungombe (90) never returned home, a somber atmosphere engulfs the room.

Gogo Grace Mugombe, the wife of Siachumbi Mugombe who was recently killed by an elephant, sits in her home  in Shangano Village.

“They went there and found him dead,” she says in a cracking voice, as tears stream down her cheeks. Mungombe had gone to round up his herd of cattle from the grazing lands alone when he met his fate at Sinechumba near Lukosi River.

“He told me he was going to get his cattle as no one would bring them for him. I had suggested that he waits because they sometimes returned on their own but, on that day, it was as if the gods had summoned him to die in that tragic manner,” said Tshuma.

Knowing the danger associated with the river – a watering hole and grazing space for wild animals during the dry spell – she had a hard time getting sleep that night. In the morning she alerted their son and in no time a community search party had begun. Within a few hours, Tshuma’s fears were confirmed. A corpse was recovered, with a fractured frame and surrounded by elephant spoors.

This tragic story is unfortunately not the only one that is reported. In fact, official records show that over 55 people have died this year alone owing to human and wildlife conflict in the Hwange District, with about half of it involving elephants. In Shangano, Mungombe was the second recorded victim within the last six months.

Over the past three years, successive droughts caused by climate change have seen water sources dry up way before the return of the rainy season while vegetation wilts excessively. People, domestic and wild animals are all feeling the stress of the famine. This has led to a scramble for precious natural resources including water. A clash between humans and wildlife has been inevitable leading to a rising number in people dying or getting injured.

Zimbabwe National Park (ZimParks) authorities blame the damages on an elephant boom within the country’s biggest nature conservancy. “This park is 14.600 square kilometers, and it is supposed to have 15.000 elephants. But we are talking of at least 45.000 which means we have more than double of the ecological carrying capacity”, Zimparks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo said recently. “What these animals will then do is to move into communities, destroy people’s livelihoods, create problems for our communities. And at the end of the day people’s lives are lost.”

That appears a flimsy excuse to cover up for the reckless pillaging of the ecosystem if testimonies by the villagers are anything to go by. They attest to having always interacted with different wild animals since long back. A look into reports from February 2015 show that the Hwange elephant population was at 54.000, about 9.000 more than what Zimparks estimates now. However, cases of death or injury were not as frequent then.

Nowadays, villagers stay apart from the elephant menace. The drought has seen a spike in other animals like Hippos and Crocodiles also invading their scanty water sources, exposing them to great danger. This is not a coincidence. Fidelis Chima, coordinator of the Greater Hwange Residents Trust, implicates rampant mining of coal as the center of the mess.

“As a result of mushrooming mining companies in Hwange, there has been a disturbance of natural habitats to the extent that elephants are now migrating from their territories into human settlements,” he said. Casually dressed in a red golf t-shirt, matching shorts, and flip-flops, Chima can easily pass for another ordinary youth in urban Hwange’s Mpumalanga neighborhood. His peers get to know about what is happening in other parts of the area through hearsay or news bulletins but by mid-morning, Chima is able to give a comprehensive report about new issues in the length and breadth of the district.

In September 2020, Chima and Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (Zela) filed a court application to stop Chinese miners from extracting coal within Hwange National Park. The case was dismissed on a technicality, with law experts criticising the judgement for being inconsistent with the law.
Ultimately, the legal pressure and international uproar prompted the government into swiftly announcing a ban on mining activities inside all game parks countrywide. “We should not be in a hurry to dig everywhere because mining should be sustainable and not encroach into other sectors or affect the welfare of human beings,” Chima says. “That is not acceptable because coal activities are forcing animals to encroach into human settlements causing wildlife-human conflict, something which can be avoided.”

There are at least 10 local mining and coking companies in Hwange. Reports point at the Ministry of Mines receiving 85 coal prospecting applications between 2010 and 2019. In the end, 28 licenses were granted in the Safari areas of Hwange, Lower Dete and Gwayi Conservancy.

Late last year, the government launched an economic roadmap to the achievement of a US$ 12 billion mining industry by 2023 from the current average of around US$ 3 billion. An attempt to meet or surpass this target has resulted in a nationwide increase of mining activities and coal extraction and is expected to earn US$ 1 billion by then. However, the benefits from an extensive thermal power production are yet to trickle down and change local lives despite bringing various health hazards to them, according to Chima.

“These mining companies create opportunities where locals are able to get some menial jobs but the same people that are employed actually get meager salaries and work in very toxic conditions,” he said, adding that “unfair labor practices are also rampant in these mining companies”.

Across the mountain from Shangano, where widowed Tshuma ponders about life without her other half, sits Gamba village, another hotspot known for increased human and wildlife interaction. Here lives Biggie Shoko (52) telling us about an event that almost ended in tragedy during an early morning trip home from a night shift at one of the coal mining corporations mentioned above.

Shoko, still working at the company, vividly recalls every detail from this day in October 2017, when he encountered an agitated female elephant.

“It was in the morning around 06.30 when I got to an open space in the bush where I saw them coming my direction. I searched the whole area for a place to hide but could not find any close by. So I decided to scare them away by whistling and they all ran to one side,” he recounted.

“Unexpectedly, one got very close to me; it just emerged from the trees raising its ears, trumpeting and I knew it would charge at me.”

An attempt to run for life was cut short when he fell and in between being picked up by large elephant horns and thrown around two times. Thoughts like “this was the end of my life story” raced through his mind. “At that time, I thought I had met my fate and I just gathered strength to shout ‘Hey wena, hamba wena (go away)’ three times, in the local Nambya language. It shockingly turned away,” he says.

His peculiar story signifies a drop in an ocean because not many victims survive elephant attacks and local leaders are worried by the rising death toll.

Ishmael Kwidini, Councillor for Ward 20 where both Shangano and Gamba villages are located, is out of sorts as troubles mount under his watch. By his own admission, the problems faced by people under his constituency haunt him every day, but his hands are tied.

“Mining is high on noise pollution. Already that has an impact of agitating the elephants. So already when they come across humans, they are in a different state of mind which contributes to their actions,” he said. “Normally it happens during the dry season when we are waiting for the rains but now, with the mining, it’s almost on a daily basis.”

He knows that the erratic water availability is made worse by underground water disturbances and contamination of water sources owing to the mineral extraction. But all the young politician can do for now is just talk. When Kwidini, born and bred in Hwange, narrates his people’s ordeals, one can sense a deep and personal connection to the area.  

“We have had our traditional water sources throughout that include rivers like Lukosi; but due to the mining activities upstream that water is now contaminated. When you come to the normal boreholes, it looks like the water tables have also gone down, so water is now a very scarce resource,” said Kwidini.

As a result, the rural economy has taken a hit with local dams like Kalope operating at minimum capacity, in addition to infestation by dangerous animals.

“Out of that dam) there is an irrigation scheme.  We also have fishermen, but now they are facing challenges because there is a Hippo. We do not know where it came from,” revealed Kwidini. The large semi-aquatic mammal came looking for water and it is now resident in the dam. “You can imagine someone was making a living out of fishing but cannot do that now. The brave ones usually end up losing their lives.”

Additionally, villagers surrounding Hwange National Park have reported increased loss of livestock to crocodiles, lions and leopards. In the past four years, at least 462 cattle, 544 goats and 94 donkeys from villages around Hwange National Park were lost to predatory animals from the game park alone.

On the other end, an emergency of new zoonotic diseases has also worsened the livestock carnage leaving local farmers clueless about how to sustain their livelihoods. In some parts, villagers have continuously watched as livestock succumbs to a new wave of afflictions yet to be medically assessed but are believed to be associated with aridity.

Meanwhile, as debate rages on how to strike a balance between coal mining and environmental justice, there has been little show of intent by politicians to put an end or slow down fossil fuel extraction. Instead, the government recently revealed intentions to upgrade and expand thermal power production as it targets to reach an ambitious 6.000 Megawatt (MW) output by 2025.

Currently, coal satisfies about half of the country’s daily electricity demand of around 1.000MW; this is despite the fact that Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Paris Agreement on reduction of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. The landlocked country pledged to reduce its carbon footprint, particularly in the energy sector, by 33% per capita come 2030.

Meanwhile, the majority of people in Hwange can hardly attest to the benefits of this coal production. Most villagers constitute a part of the energy poor citizens, close to 60% of the country’s entire population. The energy poverty is so entrenched that even some residents leaving right next to the black-smoke-puffing thermal power stations do not have access to the resource.

“We have got resources, but they are not even benefiting the local people,” says Malvin Daka, Director of Vostile Creatives Trust, an organization working on empowering vulnerable groups in rural Hwange. “Another problem is that people do not even know the exact value of resources we have here.”

Instead of life getting better from the different mining activities taking shape in the area, the lives of local residents are apparently getting worse as each day passes. When activists like Daka raise these issues, they are threatened with eviction from local hostels under the Hwange Station jurisdiction. In charge of a largely rural population, he insists that he has to continue by all means.

It does not take special acumen for one to see the ecological damage from coal extraction in Hwange. Black soils mixed with whitish chemical residue, significant drying up of streams and the dead fish seen sometimes floating in the little water left within river courses like Deka, a tributary to the majestic Zambezi, are all testament to how humans are reaping the fruits of carelessness.

What was once a blessing of natural resources is turning into a curse for local people who are enduring some of the worst impacts of man-made disasters.

Crippled and bound to her bed for most of what is left of her mature life, Tshuma, the 81-year-old widow at Shangano village, is concerned about the future of her grandchildren that seems bleak under successive droughts, extreme heat, and a recurring wild animal onslaught. “Life used to be good in this area back in the day,” the octogenarian reminisces.