Cross border thieves are targeting water infrastructure such as solar panels and pumps at boreholes in three game reserves in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland North province, pegging back efforts by conservationists to save wild animals from effects of frequent droughts in the region.
Several solar panels have been stolen from boreholes dotted around Hwange National Park, Kazuma Pan National Park and the Zambezi National Park by suspected thieves from neighbouring Zambia.
Trevor Lane, whose organisation, Bhejane Trust, has been leading in the mobilisation of funds to drill boreholes and install solar panels to power the pumps at the three game parks, said the theft of solar panels intensified during Covid-19 lockdowns.
“It is very disheartening and distressing to drive up to a solar panel array and see it has been vandalised and panels missing,” Lane said.
“And just when you think you have everything under control, there is a very determined gang of Zambian thieves armed with crowbars and hacksaws, who have been raiding and stealing panels and pumps along the upper Zambezi region, including on the Chamabonda Vlei.
“They use a combination of cutting with the hacksaws and brute force with the crowbars to break the frames holding the panels.”
At one watering hole in the Zambezi National Park, thieves damaged four solar panels while trying to remove them.
They also tried to steal a pump at the site.
“They then hit Chamabonda two and again left empty handed, completely cutting up the lower frame but breaking up the panels in trying to get them out,” Lane said.
“Such trends have been playing out in our parks and we fear that during summer from August to October our elephants in particular are going to struggle more because these thieves seem not to have any regard for them.
“The more they vandalise these solar systems on a daily basis, the less we are going to be able to supply water to these elephants which rely on these boreholes and that’s disappointing.”
The Bhejani Trust director said Zambian authorities do not cooperate when they try to investigate the rampant thefts.
“We know the villages the thieves come from, we have some names, and you can guarantee all the villagers in Zambia along the river frontage know what is going on,” Lane said.
“The Zambians consistently fail to cooperate on issues of theft and poaching along the Zambezi and in Hwange.
“We have local poachers as well targeting our wildlife solar panels.
“We report every incident with police on both sides, but there has not been any arrest and prosecution yet.”
The value of stolen solar panels and pumps has been put at US$20,000 (£16,600). Bhejane Trust runs 46 solar powered boreholes, two on windmills and one electric pump at the three game reserves.
On days when there are no interruptions, the organisation pumps close to a million litres of water a day for a target population of 20,000 elephants.
Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesperson Tinashe Farawo said water shortages in game reserves were fuelling human-wildlife conflicts.
In 2019, 200 elephants died at the Hwange National Park due to water shortages as a result of a severe drought.
“We have lost too many people from animals such as elephants, which stray from parks into the communities in search of water and food,” Farawo said.
“So with such thefts we will find ourselves with an increased number of fatalities and destruction of infrastructure and these are issues that need to be addressed.
“We will continue putting our rangers on the ground to monitor such illegal activities.”
Droughts have become frequent in Zimbabwe due to climate change and Matabeleland North is one of the driest regions in the country.