Fire. One of the four main elements of myth, mystery and history, as well as the subject of both worship and fear throughout human evolution. The manipulation of fire separated us intellectually from our fellow creatures and gave us the ‘power tool’ to explore and expand our repertoire of capabilities. Of the four; earth, wind and air, fire was the easiest to recreate and to control. There are many folklores and tales as to how mankind first learned about fire and if one is to delve deeper in the science of fossil record, it states that the first wild fire occurred approximately 420 million years ago, as the levels of atmospheric oxygen rose thanks to the increase of combustible vegetation. However, even after all these millions of years, fire still retains that wild and uncontrollable quality as it still manages to ravage the earth’s surface unchecked.
As winter arrives on our doorstep in Zimbabwe, even in this relatively warm climate, fire is still essential to our culture. Traditional images of snuggling up in front of a warm fire come to mind and the distinctive acrid taste of smoke hangs in the air in both rural and urban environments. However over the past decade a new and very tragic image has begun to be a familiar sight; char burnt veld wherever one looks. During this time of year my heart drops to the very pit of my stomach, when I look up into the sky and see billowing fire clouds! Birds circle on hot thermals, scavenging for any misfortunate creature fleeing the flames. After the fire rips through an area all that is left is kilometres and kilometres of blackened, smoking, sterile landscape. Through our socio-economic upheaval of land re-distribution, uncontrolled wildfires have been one of the most destructive consequences. Reports show that 11 million hectares of land were burnt in 2004, and last year a reportly 11 504 947 hectares were again burnt! As a percentage of Zimbabwe’s total land area, this equates to 29% of the total. We have lost nearly a third of our biomass to fire this year.
The ramifications of the damage and costs relating to bush fires are in the billions. With unmanaged burning the following can be expected, a reduction in biodiversity, destruction of flora and fauna, reduction of soil fertility, increased erosion and soil compaction that increases surface run-off, thereby decreasing infiltration. All this reduces water needed to recharge ground water sources.
The lack of social consequence is a primary result of uncontrolled wildfires. For example; poachers start fires in order to flush their targets from the safety of the vegetation. In resettled and communal areas, people smoke out bees using grass torches to get to the honey, but are not always careful to properly put out the fires. At bus terminuses, passengers start little fires to warm themselves whilst waiting, but often board buses without dousing them. Veld fires can also be ignited by burning cigarette stubs carelessly thrown out of moving vehicles by drivers or passengers. During the winter months many resettled farmers use burning as a method to clear their fields but often do not stop the fires as they move further out of their boundaries.
Only in extreme cases are veld fires induced by natural factors like lightning.
In a country like Zimbabwe, where we have a high percentage of combustible biomass it seemed sensible to have a legislation that relates to the use and control of fire. Hence the Forest Act was first written in 1949 which forbids people from burning, growing or standing vegetation on any land without prior notice to the occupants of all adjourning land and the police.
The Act further stipulates that in the event that one is found guilty in a court of law of setting a fire outside of the criteria as stipulated, they should be liable for either a fine or imprisonment or both.
However, ignorance of these regulations by both civilian and official alike has resulted in a regressive attitude towards proper fire management, and there is now a need to re-educate the general populace on the proper use of one our most fundamental tools. With the survival and fate of many wild animals under threat from wild fires, we as the Tikki Hywood Trust are proud to have been involved in the fire awareness campaign initiated by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
In 2010, with the help of like-minded organisations the Tikki Hywood Trust was also asked by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authorities to assist with the firebreaks for the Hwange National Park. Our largest and premier collection of naturally occurring wildlife, home to specially protected species and endangered alike, the Park is home to 105 mammal species, including 19 large herbivores and eight large carnivores. The population of African wild dogs to be found in Hwange is thought to be of one of the largest surviving groups in Africa today.
With all these creatures relying on the environment which they call home, it is vital that we protect the vegetation from unnatural fire devastation. The winter months are the hardest of all for wildlife and without the required vegetation all animals in the food chain eventually face starvation. In 2010, we co-ordinated and assisted several groups and organisations in achieving the first comprehensive boundary firebreak for the park in decades. We are very proud to be involved in this operation again this year and hopefully will extend the protection against fires further than what we were able to last year.
Results so far are depicted in the map below;
People involved in making this possible
African Bush Camps – Beks Ndlovu
Friends of Hwange
Gary Cantle & Peter Banks – with out whom we would not have managed to cover so much ground in such a short time frame
Martin Peters Safaris – Martin Peters
National Parks Head Office and Hwange National Park staff
Tikki Hywood Trust
WEZ Matebeleland Branch