"No Un-guided Walking" in Mana Pools National Park

The Zambezi Society would like to clarify the current situation with regard to the recent controversial “banning” of un-escorted walking in Mana Pools National Park.

Until very recently, one of the unique attributes contributing towards Mana Pools’ reputation as a  global brand was the freedom of visitors to experience the wilderness in a primal way.  The most recent Mana Pools Management Plan states:-  “Mana Pools is probably one of the only National Parks in Africa with dangerous big game that permits unescorted walking.  ....  This is one of the unique experiences of this park and is listed as an exceptional resource.  There have been several fatalities mainly through elephant and buffalo attacks, but considering the numbers of visitors who take part in this activity, the numbers are remarkably low”.

However, the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority has decided, as is their right and responsibility, to immediately revisit the “unescorted walking” aspect of a tourist’s experience in Mana Pools National Park.  They have announced that with immediate effect, “no un-guided tours” will take place in Mana Pools i.e. the public will no longer be able to walk without an accompanying guide.

This comes at a time when The Zambezi Society, in consultation with its public constituency and in collaboration with other stakeholders, including the tour operators and the Parks Authority itself, was in the process of developing a comprehensive Code of Conduct for visitor behaviour in the Park.  This had been initiated, as a result of recent reported incidences of inappropriate behaviour on the part of the un-escorted walking public and certain tour operators, and was to be introduced for the coming safari season.

When the “no unguided tours” decision was announced, The Zambezi Society immediately engaged the Parks Authority management.  We attended stakeholder meetings and wrote submissions to the Authority.

However, at the latest meeting (Thursday 14th May) we were advised that the Parks Authority will maintain its position that walkers at Mana Pools will need to be accompanied by a Professional guide or a Parks ranger.

The principal is clear (walks must be escorted),  but at the same time the Parks Authority advises that the guidelines around walking in the immediate surrounds of exclusive camps, picnic sites, viewing areas, short distances from a vehicle and fishing on the river will be "functional".

Visitors will be permitted to bring a Professional Guide to be with them during their stay.  (The Zambezi Society is considering opening dialogue with the Professional guides to set up a data base of suitably qualified candidates.   However, this will need careful thought as to how it will sit with the  existing situation where tour operators are required to pay annual licences for operating in the Park.)

Going forward, The Zambezi Society will endeavour to be included in working on the "nuts and bolts" of this new regulation.  We will continue to engage the Parks Authority towards arriving at a special category and criteria for the return of a responsible level of un-escorted walking guided by a comprehensive Code of Conduct.

KEY FACTORS FOR CONSIDERATION IN FUTURE DISCUSSIONS The Zambezi Society considers that the following key factors warrant consideration and future stakeholder discussion, in order to arrive at a holistically considered set of revised rules and regulations which will form the basis of a Code of Conduct for the benefit of all users – the wildlife being a key stakeholder in this process:

  1. Safety
  2. Wildlife
  3. Parks resources
  4. Tour Operators
  5. Visitor impact
  6. Infrastructure and Logistical Challenges
  7. Considerations

1.   Safety a.  This may appear counter intuitive but anecdotal evidence would indicate that unescorted walking has led to very few fatalities over the decades. It is likely that driving, construction, mining and manufacturing may be proven to more dangerous pursuits. Most walkers are aware of the risks, many have years of experience with wildlife and most treat wild animals with due respect.  It is possible that at times armed escorts take more risks with wildlife due to the fact they are armed.  In the current circumstances, the Parks Authority is not accountable for any death or fatality of a tourist as it is clear that any walker does so at their own risk. b.  In the safari season the Mana Pools floodplain is heavily denuded, and visibility, in the main, is excellent. c.  In the last few years there has been a marked increase in dry-season visitors especially from South Africa. This has led to larger groups walking. There have been accounts of walkers, some of whom are inexperienced, acting arrogantly and with a misplaced overconfidence.  Further the same sub-set of visitors have taken blatant liberties based on their knowledge that the Zimbabwe Parks Authority is under-resourced. d.  As with many situations in life, when does “the state” step-in and when does it allow adults to determine their own level of exposure to risk. e.  There appears to be a concern at “National Level” that the Parks Authority needs to be doing more across its Estates to ensure its already high safety record is tightened further. A review from time to time is well worth the time spent. It is also important to review safety in context and be cautious of allowing problems in one Park to lead of over-correction in other Parks. It is probable that climbing Mount Nyangani, in  Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands, even as an experienced climber, is more dangerous than an experienced person walking in Mana Pools. It is understood that there will be a perception that a fatality of a foreign tourist will be damaging for tourism. This “National Concern” may also stem from the perceived need (and expense) of other government services being called in to assist when there is an accident. In Mana Pools this is highly unlikely as the Parks Authority there have the skills sets to track and recover a walker. f.  Certain tour operators need to be held to a Code of Conduct as there have been occasions where operators, under the comfort of a weapon, have induced lions to charge or gone far too close to elephant. This shoddy behaviour sets a poor example to others and can lead these animals to seek revenge on others. g.  The Park regulations state that all guides need to carry a heavy calibre weapon. An incident with a Park ranger carrying a light calibre weapon may not stand up to the scrutiny of law. If Parks rangers guide a walk, they take on a greater level of responsibility than a tourist allowed to “walk at their own risk.” h.  Junior and/or inexperienced rangers are likely to be more of a safety liability than an unarmed experienced walker. The later will be inclined to take fewer risks and respect the “safe zone” of each wildlife species.

2.  Wildlife a.  It is a fact that in recent times certain groups of tourists and tour operators have intruded on wildlife by driving off road and by moving too close on foot. Enforcement by both the Parks Authority and responsible tourists of the proposed new Code of Conduct will go a long way to address this.

3.  Parks Resources a.  At a recent anti-poaching workshop it was highlighted that Park anti-poaching efforts are being hampered by limitations in terms of rangers, transport and equipment.  The hot spots and routes in and out of the Mana Pools National Park are: the southern boundary, certain river systems into the Park and known pans. To cover these areas effectively more rangers are needed in addition to those on station at present. b.  The Mana floodplain and Chitake are well covered by tourist activity which acts as a form of anti-poaching deterrent in itself. It would be a great pity to use up a scarce resource (rangers) to oversee “public walking” which has hitherto been an iconic attribute of the Park. c.  The Tashinga Initiative has recently been given a permit to place one operative (land and water based) within the Park, to assist with deployments and uplifts.  This will mean that rangers who have up till now been confined to camp, can now become mobile. d.  Parks Authority staff need to be encouraged to fine people who transgress the rules. Taking this action will encourage tourism to comply.

4.  Tour Operators a.  The Lower Zambezi Tour Operators Association (LZTOA) formed a team to work with The Zambezi Society and the Parks Authority, at station level, to develop a Code of Conduct. This was in recognition of the need to control the few wayward groups of tourists and the occasional operator.  In addition they have agreed to lend the Parks Authority support in reporting breaches of Park rules. b.  The LZTOA supports unescorted walking for people who are experienced, responsible and who are conservation enthusiasts. They recognise that most people who fall into this group cannot afford to stay at an operator’s camp nor can they afford the hourly rates to use a ranger.

5.  Visitor Impact a.  For a certain group of visitors the fact that they can walk unescorted is an experience that has a deep positive impact – maybe even spiritual and humbling and provides a meaningful way to engage in nature. b.  Many are Zimbabweans who show respect for the wild yet they cannot afford to use the services of a ranger or professional guide.  There is also the feeling that it is safer to walk without a weapon as one is more attentive and fewer risks are taken. c.  There is a growing tourist market around the world for “extreme sports” and travelling to parts of the world where one can engage in nature “on its terms.”  Looking into the future, if Mana Pools retains an element of unescorted walking this could become a major income generator. d.  There are a growing number of people who want to travel and get away from the controls and prescriptions of the “Nanny States” that the Western countries have become. e.  Research seems to indicate that an “incident” such as a hippo bumping a boat, someone dying or being injured in e.g. white water rafting, results in an upward surge in bookings for these activities.

6.  Infrastructure and Logistical Challenges a.  The road, picnic site and viewpoint infrastructure in Mana Pools, at present, does not lend itself to absorbing all the tourist pressure that would result from confining people to vehicles. b.  One of the outputs of the recent anti-poaching workshop was to re-open some of the internal and escarpment roads. Once this has been done tourists will be able to travel more widely. c.   For a tourist staying at one of the exclusive camps (New Ndungu, Mucheni), even if the newly-introduced “functional guidelines” permit a certain level of un-escorted walking within a close radius of the camp, picnic site or vehicle,  visitors wanting to walk any distance would have to drive approximately 30 minutes to collect a ranger, drive to the start of the area they wish to walk and then repeat the circuit at the end of the walk. This might be needed twice a day for the duration of their visit.  Vehicular traffic will be considerably increased and Mana Pools will become like any other Park.  This may result in a drop-off in visitor numbers. d.  How far would visitors with fishing permits be allowed to walk along the river in terms of the “functional guidelines”? e.  Chitake would be a particular challenge as there is only one road. This road is, rightfully, away from the Spring.  Visitors would be confined to camp. It would be inefficient to deploy station rangers at Chitake just to guide tourists while poachers roam the Chiwuya and the upper reaches of the Chitake Rivers. Rangers stationed at Chitake can cover a circuit of at least 12km a day in anti-poaching duties.

7.  Considerations   The following are put forward for consideration:- i.   Visitors who wish to walk sign a special book at reception to confirm they have read and understood the Code of Conduct, and that they intend to walk un-escorted. The Parks Authority will then know how many people intend to do this. ii.  Visitors who wish to walk purchase a “walking permit” from the Parks Office for a specific charge per day. iii.  Develop a more detailed Code of Conduct for walkers - for example: no more than 5 in a group, no less than 2 in a group, no one under the age of 16. iv.  Allow un-escorted walking only for Zimbabwean residents. This way if there is an incident it does not attract the same international attention. v.  Walkers must have one experienced person in their group. These criteria can be defined. vi.  Any breaches of conduct will result in immediate  expulsion from the Park and a one year ban. vii. Allow and encourage members of the LZTOA to report breaches

The  Zambezi Society considers that taking a partial step towards improving the behaviour of visitors through the enforcement of a carefully thought-out Code of Conduct rather than retaining a blanket walking ban will reduce public disappointment in the removal of one of Mana’s iconic attributes and allow spare resources to be dedicated to much-needed anti-poaching efforts.

If you would like to contribute to the on-going discussions between The Zambezi Society, the Parks Authority and various stakeholders, on this important issue, please put your thoughts in writing and e-mail them to us at zambezi@iwayafrica.co.zw

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