Hero of Africa: Clive Stockil, Brokering Conflict to Cooperation

Stockil has spent a lifetime proving that it is possible to turn conflict into cooperation, to develop a peaceful coexistence between communities and the wildlife in shared spaces.

Photo by Richard Bangs
Photo by Richard Bangs

Clive Stockil grew up on a very large, remote cattle ranch in the low veldt of what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. The Shangaan, local tribespeople, were neighbors, friends, and guides, who taught him to fish and hunt rats, squirrels, and birds. Clive considered the Shangaan professors of the bush, deans of interpretation. Early on, he immersed in Shangaan traditions, mastered the language, and became an evangelist for preservation of original culture and wildlife.

When old enough, his parents sent him to boarding school, a coat and tie institution. But he found formal education “an inconvenience.” It interfered with the more important things in life, things he had learned from the Shangaan. But, to assuage family, he completed a degree in Ecology in South Africa, and then came home to pursue a career in conservation. 

We are sipping G&Ts on the deck of Chilo Lodge, an improbably spectacular ecolodge perched on a cliff high above the Save River in southeastern Zimbabwe. Below us several “tuskateers” are lumbering across the river, while an obstinacy of buffalo linger on the opposite beach. The river is the boundary with the Gonarezhou National Park, home to some 12,000 elephants, among the highest densities in Africa. Gonarezhou means “a place for elephants,” and was Clive’s backyard as he grew up. 

Gonarezhou National Park, photo by Richard Bangs

In certain parts of Africa, informed by erratic rainfall, a spectrum of species evolved that thrive in harshness. Humans are recent embellishments, but they managed to co-exist with the native wildlife for centuries, sharing the shade of the baobabs, drinking from the same rivers, tenanting the same space. Then came the Europeans. In 1934 the area was declared a Game Reserve, with controlled hunting, and in 1975, a national park, mandating re-location of all the people living in the gazetted area to outside its borders. It became a place for the mobile rich to play, while sweeping away the inert poor. 

This led to inevitable clashes, and a shambolic series of events, accelerating with human population growth, food and resource shortages, drought and political chaos.  Some in communities, pushed to less fertile areas with fewer wild animals, turned to poaching in the park, seeking bush meat for family tables. Others subscribed to the theory that if the big game were erased from the canvas (one technique: rat poison in water holes), especially elephant, then tourists would no longer come. Gonarezhou would cease to be a viable national park, and would revert to its original human inhabitants. And of course, there were the mercenary poachers who killed for ivory and the riches that came from illegal trade. Some, who shared profits and meat with the community, were considered Robin Hoods, bush heroes to be coddled and protected.

It devolved into a lose-lose situation. Only an undertaking of vultures profited from the dynamic. But it provoked the desire to sit down and negotiate a mechanism for turning conflict into cooperation, a path to peaceful co-existence of wildlife and the six thousand people living on the bleeding edges of the park. 

After Independence in 1980, the government, recognizing Clive’s unique talents and associations, asked him to be an honorary officer, helping to mediate between the communities outside the park boundaries and the wildlife within. The new black-majority-rule government said to Clive, who is white, “You grew up here, you speak the language, the local communities know you, they trust you. You’re the guy to go there and create some form of a co-existence.” 

Clive went to the communities surrounding the park and put forth a Gedanken-Experiment: “You have an animal called a cow, which you protect. You have another animal called an elephant, which you do not. Both consume grass and trees. Why do you have a problem with one and not the other?” The simple answer was, “The cow belongs to us. The elephant doesn’t.” 

So, Clive went to Harare, the capital, and met with the director of Parks, with ministry officials, and proposed an experiment: that if the adjacent communities agreed to stop poaching, they would be granted ownership of wildlife that leaves the park and enters their land. After heated negotiations, the government agreed to give it a try. Clive returned and said to community elders, “Okay guys, you are the first community in this country to be given ownership over animals that leave the park. Animals in the park belong to the government. Animals that come across the river, you now can manage and utilize and protect.”

A year later the poaching had been reduced by 90%. Clive was awarded the lifetime Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa.

Clive then helped usher to existence the Jamanda Conservancy, first of its kind in Zimbabwe, 7000 hectares of community land, including 10 frontage kilometers on the Save River, upon which spreads the upmarket Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge, a joint venture with the private sector that shares proceeds with the community, and employs about 40 members. 

The community has rights to sell hunting licenses for two mature elephant males a year, and the monies and meat are shared. Non-consumptive wildlife tourism contributes to the community chest, and the monies have underwritten community infrastructure, teachers and health facilities. The first junior school was built with revenues from hunting. This wasn’t a school built by donors. This wasn’t a school built by the government. This was a school built by the community, and its realization created an enormous sense of pride. Those involved felt uplifted and empowered.

Clive looks down at a memory of elephants making its way to the community side of the river. “I have to say, the scene you saw a minute ago, those elephants crossing this river, would not have been possible when we started this program. What we just saw is positive and tangible proof of success. Those elephants are coming from the park onto the communal-land side of the river, in. broad daylight. They feel safe, and have now taken up residence on communal land. When we started 40 years ago, that wasn’t the case. It was a war, and the elephants knew it. 

“Today the same community that wanted to move back into the park 40 years ago has allocated 7,000 hectares of their own land, the Jamanda Conservancy, specifically for wildlife. That’s nothing less than a miracle. Forty years ago, it would have been almost a crime to have suggested it.”

Jamanda Conservancy, Photo by Richard Bangs

Clive sums it up this way: “The long-term survival of African national parks with local communities as neighbors will depend on recognition of the need to develop and promote co-existence through equitable benefit-sharing of natural resources. At the end of the day, if wildlife can contribute to the livelihoods of local people and become part of the human system, we’re achieving sustainable conservation. 

“We’re sitting on what was a great divide here. This program has, over time, filled in that divide. And to me that is a powerful transformation. It is really encouraging to see the change of attitude, not only by the humans, but by the animals themselves. This to me is proof that turning conflict into cooperation, developing a coexistence between man and beast, has to be the only way forward for this continent, and I’m sure other places around the world.”

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