Desperate baboons feed on tobacco

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HURUNGWE – Intelligent and thus highly adaptable, baboons have added another cuisine to their growing menu of delicacies, this time the country’s most priced cash crop — tobacco.


With agricultural practice lacking concern for ecological balance, these Chocma monkeys are reaping revenge on farmers’ lack of regard for the environment as they have begun raiding tobacco fields in Hurungwe as they run out of food due to land clearing for farming and forest razing to cure the golden leaf.


“Fruit trees have been cut down destroying baboons’ food sources. They are now eating tobacco, which was previously unheard of.


“This is a message from our ancestral spirits that our custodianship of the environment has not been properly handled,” Chief Chundu said.


Like in most traditional communities across the country, baboons here are considered sacred and killing them is prohibited.


“Farmers are having to watch their tobacco fields more than anything else,” the chief said.


Baboons’ flexibility around pollution impacts and ability to thrive in human-altered habitats is growing to legendary status.


Baboons have also for years now been a menace in the most unlikely of environments — timber plantations, due to their uncanny ability to experiment with various plants for food.


After environmental scales were upset for profit in the establishment of pine plantations, which drove out their natural predators — pythons, leopards, crowned eagles and crocodiles — their population grew exponentially and with depleted food sources, they discovered the delicacy of pine tree bark — severely threatening the viability of the ailing industry.


Now stripping particularly pine trees for their sweet juice, the baboons are eating into the timber industry’s profits.


Timber Producers’ Federation (TPF), however, acknowledges the significance of the Chocma menace. 


The problem has been growing. And the whole forestry industry is grappling with it with little success.


In the late 90s, the Forestry Commission’s commercial arm and Border Timbers even tried to play dirty by using a seven generation poison to try to bring the exploding population under control.


This was abandoned because of its devastating impact to the already disrupted commercial forest ecology.


Borders Timbers admits it is in a fix.


“Baboon damage to plantations has been on the increase over the last 10 years.


“This has resulted in high tree mortality and significantly reduced yield per hectare.


“Several control methods to reduce the damage are currently under trial at both company and industry level in Zimbabwe,” it says on its online portal.


The total area with reported baboon damage in Zimbabwe amounted to 5 317 hectares in 2004, according to a TPF unpublished report entitled Review of baboons, baboon damage and baboon control in plantation forests of Eastern Zimbabwe.


“The extent of baboon damage in Zimbabwe, expressed as the total percentage of area damaged by baboons as a function of the total area planted to pine for the period 2000-2004 has escalated from 10,8 to 13,3 percent despite harvesting activities removing damaged trees,” the report noted.


According to an even earlier unpublished article by the Bindura University of Science Education entitled An evaluation of the methods baboon damage assessment in pine plantations in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, the timber industry was having actual volume losses of 50,45 cubic metres per hectare annually.


Baboon pestilence has been affecting rural areas more severely though.


In Buhera, villagers are having to guard their homes at all times as baboons are fast developing taste for chickens and goats, while the fields also need to be watched — stretching human resources.


Jaspen Gurupa, a village head under Chief Nyashanu, said some people are now abandoning some fields as they have become impossible to protect from marauding troops of baboons.


“Some families have abandoned some of their fields which are at the edge of mountains because they had become nearly impossible to protect, opting instead for fields that are further into the community,” Gurupa said, adding that the primates are increasingly becoming brazen, hunting for food even right into the village.


In Hurungwe, however, the community is now aware and are actively trying to re-establish heterogeneous forests that can sustain baboon populations and stop them from encroaching into human settlements.


The community is already in a tree planting frenzy.


At Chitindiva Primary School in Chief Chundu’s area has, over the past two months, planted over 900 trees.


Chamunorwa Govero, a senior teacher at the school, says apart from planting indigenous fruit trees and others with medicinal value, they are also raising nurseries for fast growing exotic trees for farmers to use in their tobacco curing barns.


“We have 3 200 gum trees in our nursery that are ready for distribution into the community for the establishment of woodlots from where they can harvest them for use in curing tobacco,” Govero said.


The environmental consciousness has been triggered by Carbon Green Africa —  a private company that negotiated lucrative carbon credit sales that are benefitting Kariba belt communities through a project designed to reduce carbon emissions through desertification and degradation.


Titled Kariba REDD+ Project, the initiative has allowed communities leaders to realise that the region can still make money through sustainable agricultural practices while cashing in on their standing trees.


“The communities we are working with have been inspired by the fact that they can convert their clean air and standing forests into money without breaking any sweat,” Carbon Green Africa managing director Charles Ndondo said.


For successful regeneration of forests which is hoped to limit human and animal conflict that is costing the agricultural sector millions of dollars in losses, responsible farming practices says Hurungwe District Council’s social services department chairperson Jealousy Matesanwa who coordinates community projects from carbon credit sales, said.


“We would want everyone to be conscious of their farming activities on the environment and adopt conservation farming methods to limit the current wildlife and human conflict that is coming to the fore with baboons developing a taste for tobacco,” Matesanwa said.

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