The Panda-Masuie Release Project

Photo credit: ©IFAW/Lesanne Dunlop.

Many of you will already be aware from previous articles, of Leonard Joel and IFAW’s (International Fund for Animal Welfare) friendship, which has already driven critical momentum for change within the environmental sector.

In 2016 we initially worked together to help the Leonard Joel team phase out ivory sales over two years, as well as implement a full ban on rhino horn.  Since that point, Leonard Joel was and remains a vocal champion of the domestic ivory ban and has openly and actively used its reputable platform to influence other auction houses in Australia and internationally, to adopt similar bans. 
This unrivalled commitment by Leonard Joel’s Managing Director John Albrecht and his entire team to stopping wildlife trade by reducing demand has been instrumental in securing an Australian Government announcement
last year that they would look to implement a domestic ivory ban.

Since that announcement, IFAW continues to put pressure on our Federal and state governments, and governments around the world to implement domestic bans.

But our work protecting elephants doesn’t stop there. 
We don’t and won’t stop poaching by targeting one place or decision; we need to tackle wildlife trade every single step of the way: from the source through transit points to the destination, both offline and online; by pushing for and improving policies and legislation, devoting resources to law enforcement, and reducing demand.

At the core of IFAW’s philosophy is that individual animals matter.  As the challenges that these individual animals and their habitats face have grown larger and more complex, so has IFAW’s approach.  And given that we are all living through a global pandemic, one question I’m asked regularly is “how does IFAW continue to operate on the ground?”

To answer this, we recently released some images of rangers in Zimbabwe who continue to work to look after threatened wildlife such as elephants.  But, because of COVID-19, they are not able to return to their homes and families between their shifts, while a lack of tourism has had a huge impact on local communities and economic pressure has increased the risk of poaching.

The following interview with colleagues and images from the IFAW-supported Panda-Masuie Release Project in Victoria Falls, highlights the work that is undertaken to look after a herd of 14 rescued and rehabilitated elephant orphans that are learning to live as wild elephants in a groundbreaking venture.

Rebecca Keeble
Regional Director Oceania, IFAW

Photo credit: ©IFAW/Lesanne Dunlop.

In a partnership between Wild is Life-ZEN, Zimbabwe’s only elephant rescue centre, and IFAW, young elephants now have the chance to roam safely and slowly integrate with wild herds in a vast protected forest reserve, which the organisations secured in another first for Zimbabwe – the land had previously been used for hunting.

Despite a strict lockdown, the work continues and both the elephants’ individual handlers who work tirelessly with each elephant and the rangers who protect them all have been on site for up to eight weeks without a break, and with none expected any time soon. Long-term quarantine has ensured the health of the staff and so here, protective gear like gloves and masks are not currently being worn.

“Most of the elephants at Panda-Masuie were rescued as orphans by the Wild is Life-ZEN elephant orphanage in Harare,” said Neil Greenwood, IFAW’s Regional Director, Southern Africa. “Some calves are rescued when no more than a few weeks old. It has taken years of careful nurturing to ensure they were prepared to move to the facility 700 kms away at Victoria Falls.

“IFAW believes in the importance of rescuing and protecting individual animals as well as whole populations so this is a vital project which continues to provide daily care and protection, despite the challenges of the global pandemic.”

The pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on Victoria Falls’ main employer, the tourism industry. In a country already hard hit by drought and food shortages, the economic fallout on communities dependent on a thriving tourism industry has been catastrophic. Hotels and lodges at the world famous waterfalls have closed, incomes have dried up and people are desperate to put food on the table. The temptation to poach wildlife to provide food for families and for economic gain has become that much greater.

Panda-Masuie Forest Reserve has not been exempt and has seen a marked uptick in the number of poaching-related activities.

From elephants targeted for their tusks, to smaller game at risk of poaching for the pot, no wild animal is safe from the bullet or the snare. At the same time, communities need to be protected from wildlife conflict as people and animals compete for limited resources such as water, land and grass. This is the job of the forestry rangers.

IFAW commissioned this series of photographs telling the story of a small community of people living and working together as a family for an extended period during extraordinary circumstances, dedicating their lives to the elephants and their forest home. It focuses on Paradzai Mutize, head elephant handler at Panda-Masuie and Francis Ncube, Forestry Commission ranger.

It is a unique story that keeps the tale of the rescued elephants undergoing their gradual rewilding central, at the same time speaking to the critical role of the rangers protecting the handlers as well as their anti-poaching patrols.

“It’s impossible to put this kind of rehabilitation work on hold – it simply can’t be interrupted,” said Jos Danckwerts, Project Manager at the Panda-Masuie Release Site.

“Every day sees each individual take one step closer to living their lives as a free-roaming elephant. The handlers are selfless in their commitment, better still they can do their work knowing the elephants are secure and all thanks to the Forestry Rangers. It’s a remarkable team effort,” said Danckwerts.

The Panda-Masuie Release Project is helping its staff cope in different ways, including building a small bush chapel, to support the staff’s spiritual needs. Practically, a vegetable garden has been extended to provide a productive leisure activity.