My story with Hwange and its lions started more than 20 years back as a safari guide and it was then, showing foreign tourists lions, that I came to love them. I went overseas and studied in the UK and when I came back home to Zimbabwe in 2006, I knew I wanted to study lions.
I hounded the Oxford’s WildCRU for a position on their Hwange Lion Research project until they finally relented and took me on, and it was then that I came to realise that lions were in peril and the real lion conservation needs were on park boundaries. I specialised on the conflict between lions and people and set up the Zimbabwe version of the Kenyan Lion Guardians. We called ours “The Long Shields” and we had great adventures trying to mitigate the conflict. That project continues today and is very successful, but it became apparent to me that in order to make meaningful, long-term changes to people’s behaviour in terms of lions and the conflict between the two, we needed to come at the situation from the people’s perspective FIRST.
Herding, or lack thereof, is the single biggest reason that lions kill livestock around Hwange national park’s boundaries. Something like 90% of cattle killed by lions are grazing unattended and yet Africans have had a deep culture of attending livestock since time began. Something has changed! Now, as a lionman, I would have seen that and told people to herd their cattle to avoid this situation and that would be that, but from our new perspective we stop to ask the question: “Why aren’t you herding your cattle?”
The answer is a simple one and without malice or ambiguity “herding is seen as a dead-end job and one without prospects”. Hardly an interesting career choice for the traditional demographic that herds cattle……young men!
Our challenge then was clear and that was to turn herding into an opportunity, rather than a dead-end. This type of thinking drives our every decision now, from creating the mobile boma project to the trade skills project that you can read about on the website.
After studying fine art at Goldsmiths college, I quickly realized that art for art’s sake was not why I loved it, but it was its ability to communicate outside of verbal language. Working with people with special needs totally changed my practice as I could see how art can be a means of communication for the voiceless.
Work took me from the UK, via Paris to Africa. My passion for wildlife was nature not nurture for me and so living in Hwange National Park was a dream come true to see animals in their own environment. I volunteered to run conservation education initiatives using art for Hwange Lion Research and as a field assistant.
As I become more immersed in this beautiful country, both Brent and I decided we wanted to live with the people who ‘live’ with wildlife to understand what that truly entails. We approached our chief who is the traditional leader of this area and asked if we could live in the communal area as part of the community. We were so humbled and excited to be accepted by him and the community members. To honour their support, we know we had to throw ourselves in to this opportunity and give it 100%.
This has included building our home, learning about living off grid and practicing permaculture. All of this heightened our understanding of how destructive modern life is for the natural world. From reading, doing short courses and mistakes along the way, we have created our new life.
My focus now is developing permaculture practises that can be applied in the community. This isn’t only about growing food, it is a design system that can be applied to anything. One of my first community projects was working with local women to make rocket stoves, which you can read about on the website. Rocket stoves are incredibly efficient, they use very little wood; they are also great for family wellbeing as they produce very little smoke and they liberate women, who no longer need to constantly collect firewood and carry it over long distances. Some women have gone on to make the stoves as a business and support themselves.
This year we are installing chilli bombs, fences and bee-hives to protect fields from elephants and developing local market gardens, which include selling honey, seeds and nuts.
I enjoy school because I get to learn new things unlike my old school and I get to be with my Mom or Dad at school.
I love being with my friends after school & on Saturdays we teach my friends from 10am to 12noon.
I’m not so scared of scorpions as I am of snakes. My favorite things to do are climbing trees, playing and making lego.
My mom and dad work very hard to do earth care, people care, fair share, no matter how hard our life is they go on, I don’t do as much as my mom and dad but I am a translator, a bead maker, as you can see a typist and a photographer.
The things that matter the most to me are friends, family, pets, nature and my wonderful clay house. Very soon we will have a new borehole.
By Oliver Siyataba Stapelkamp
Our Community and Our Wildlife Companions
It’s been just over 3 years of living in our homestead and it’s a constant learning experience observing, designing, trying, developing news skills. We are in a fantastic position to truly understand what it means to live with wild animals and to share with our community how invaluable it is to care for the environment which we all depend on to survive.
Training and inspiring the community in solutions that they can easily implement to improve their lives, the land and the conflict with wildlife is key to our work; and, at the same time, we are learning from from the people we live with in the community.
Our vision for the future is one of abundance for all, Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share. We hope that you will enjoy sharing in our journey as we keep you posted on both the highs and the lows along the way.