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Changing Conservation: Gonarezhou

Gonarezhou is the second biggest national park in Zimbabwe but chances are you’ve never heard of it. Tucked away in the country’s south-east lowlands, it’s a wildlife reserve with all the animals you’d expect – elephants, lions, hippo, buffalo – but it’s also the place where a revolution in conservation was born.

Aerial view of Gonarezhou National Park

The magnificent Chilojo Cliffs are just part of the sweeping Gonarezhou landscape.

We first need to backtrack to the 1980s when the wildlife of Gonarezhou and neighbouring communities were at war with each other. This is a tough part of Zimbabwe – rough, wild country and an unpredictable climate. Villagers would despair when hungry elephants destroyed their crops or baboons raided their houses for food. Local counter-measures – shooting the ‘problem’ animals – served only to bring in anti-poaching forces, exacerbating the problem and deepening the community’s hostility towards wild animals.

Elephant conservation in Zimbabwe Gonarezhou

Once feared, Gonarezhou’s elephants are now a source of income for local communities.

That all changed with the introduction of a new conservation strategy. Convinced that conservation cannot happen without community buy-in, Clive Stockil, an experienced local conservationist, argued that the local communities had to benefit directly and tangibly from the tourism that Gonarezhou and its animals attracted. The concept was called CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) and it was a significant departure from the standard model of wildlife reserves which were simply fenced-off areas aggressively defended from everyone except fee-paying visitors.

Community led conservation

Balancing wildlife conservation with community needs has led to improvements for both.

By the early 1990s things had transformed dramatically. Funds from the park had enabled the building of the community’s first school. Such was this impact that the number of arrests for poaching fell tenfold within a year. A corn mill followed, and then a clinic and a police station and now it would be fair to say that local culture, wildlife and tourism all thrive at Gonarezhou, a state of affairs that won Stockil the Prince William Award for Conservation in 2013. A further partnership with the Frankfurt Zoological Society ensures future sustainability.

Rhino conservation in Zimbabwe Gonarezhou Park

Drawing on science & local expertise allows Gonarezhou to lead ambitious conservation projects.

But what of the park itself? A dramatic landscape of rolling wooded savannah, winding rivers and sandstone cliffs, Gonarezhou means ‘place of elephants’ and it’s well-named: this reserve has one of the highest densities of elephants in any conservation area across the continent. It’s also home to several packs of endangered African Wild Dog, and has recently seen the re-introduction of the critically endangered Black Rhino. Gonarezhou is renowned for its range of antelope species and its riverine forest is the haunt of the leopard. Add over 400 bird species and you have one of the most richly diverse conservation areas in Southern Africa.

Wild dogs conservation in Zimbabwe Gonarezhou

One of the continent’s rarest carnivores, African wild dogs are a highlight at Gonarezhou.

Ideally combined with Zimbabwe’s more familiar destinations such as Victoria Falls, Gonarezhou is well off the beaten track. You’ll need to fly in, and in our opinion there’s only one place to stay: Chilo Lodge, founded by – of course – Clive Stokil.

Aerial view of Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge

Chilo Lodge takes advantage of its lofty location to offer amazing views.

Comfortably set on riverside cliffs, Chilo Lodge offers game drives as well as walking safaris, fly-camping and cultural experiences. Your canvas-and-thatch accommodation has river views and its own bathroom. For larger, independent-minded groups, Chilo has a private camp located a short distance away, complete with its own pool and a six-sleeper family chalet.

View from the safari chalet

Good Morning Gonarezhou: sunrise makes its way into a Chilo Lodge chalet.

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