Press releases > SPANA Zimbabwe
Over a recent weekend North Thanetís MP, Roger Gale went where no other British Member of Parliament has visited in recent months.  Travelling in a private capacity on a humanitarian mission as a charity worker he found himself deep inside Zimbabwe.  The following report and pictures illustrate some aspects of his trip.

Saving Animals, Saving human lives
We fly into Bulawayo through a blinding tropical storm.  The pilot circles twice before she finds a hole in the clouds. We finally reach the Joshua Nkomo No 1. Temporary Air Terminal some 24 hours after leaving home and having flown through the night via Johannesburg in South Africa.

"We" is Jeremy Hulme, Chief Executive and Simon Pope, Director of Communications with SPANA, and myself, travelling incognito on a private visit as an NGO Volunteer.  SPANA is the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad and  is now operating throughout not only in North Africa and the Middle East but also, through co-operation with   a local charity,  in Zimbabwe. It is the work of the latter that we have come to see.

The common cry is that "you should be caring about people, not bothering with animals". That sad misunderstanding   fails to recognise that in much of Africa the donkey and the mule are to a family what the car, the delivery van and the tractor are in the United Kingdom.  In a country like Zimbabwe, where whole village communities are literally scratching a living from sun-baked soil and at the very edge of starvation, the health of the working animal can and does make the difference between life and death.
SPANA - Treating donkey


SPANA - RG and wounded donkey
Roger with wounded donkey

We are driven out to the Trust's headquarters, on the edge of the town.  Up a track reduced to mud by the rains we find a modest bungalow and paddocks and stables housing some forty donkeys and a number of horses rescued from repossessed white farmsteads.  The charity employs four people. Two manage the animals at base, the other two are out on the road stopping donkey-drawn "scotch carts" and examining the animals for signs of ill-health and maltreatment.

The two wheeled carts are usually drawn by two or four donkeys and frequently heavily overloaded with firewood or other locally generated produce that the owner hopes to sell for hard currency. (with the new issue of one hundred trillion Zim dollar banknotes due to be issued at the weekend all business is done, generally illegally, in South African Rand or US dollars).

Under these circumstances harnesses and tack are primitive. Wooden shafts wear into the animals backs and collars made out of old car tyres and wire eat into the neck and shoulders. With veterinary care and medicine in expensive and short supply disease and infection are commonplace.  When the travelling DPT team finds a maltreated or sick animal they effectively confiscate it with the consent, seldom denied, of the owner and take it back to base.. I deliberately do not call it a sanctuary. This is not a rest home but a hospital and a sanatorium for animals that will generally be nursed back to health and returned to their owners to continue their working lives or, in extremis, humanely destroyed.

The cost of this work is funded by donations diminishing in a country now dependant on foreign aid, and through the support of SPANA. In Africa a little can go a very long way but much more is needed if the working animal and livestock population is to be seen through to the better times that must surely, one day, arrive.  Without these animals there will, quite simply, be nothing left to rebuild upon.
Having seen the DPT operation we move, early on the following morning, from Bulawayo some two hours drive up to  Gweru.  In the towns the roads are pitted with potholes filled with sand that has washed away in the rain. The main roads, built many years ago, are still in fair condition but the signs of decaying infrastructure are there. The verges are unkempt, fences that once held back cattle and wildlife have been stripped of wire then sold or used to make chicken runs and with the rains delivering growth miles of grassland that ought to be feeding livestock stands unused as the animals and the farmers have gone.

In Gweru we team up with two young Zimbabwean veterinary surgeons trying to make a difference. In hard times they run a struggling veterinary medicines business which helps to keep them in hard currency ("Forex" for foreign exchange) and also pays for their real work through the  Trust which they have set up to protect and carry out research into wildlife. 

Today, though, the vets are with us alongside members of the ZNSPCA (Zimbabwean National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) to investigate reports of ill-treatment and the maiming of donkeys. The day is going to get rugged.

Our first stop is in the centre of the town where a significant number of working animals have been corralled for examination.  The wear and tear of the effects poor harnesses, overweight loads and disease are evident and the vets get to work. One animal is pulled back from certain death and with antibiotics and a little care will live to draw another cart. His owner is genuinely fond of "Captain", but also needs his help to scrape a living. The necessary veterinary drugs, today provided and administered free of charge, are way beyond his means.  The State Veterinary Inspectors, whose job is to look after the health of livestock, are now unpaid by the State and left to charge for their inadequate skills and services in order to pay their own wages.  The ZNSPCA National Inspectors (there are two) struggle to make ends meet as once generous public donations have dried up. Under these circumstances the animals, at the bottom of the pile, have little chance.

Worse is to come.  In the fields on the outskirts of the town we come across our first case of a deliberately maimed donkey.  The animals, at the end of their working day, are set free to forage in the hay. Inevitably they also sometimes eat the vegetables planted illegally on public land by farmers - in Mugabe`s country everyone is now a farmer - trying to grow produce  to feed their children. Loss of crops turns to violent anger and the "farmer" takes a machete to the animal.  The first of these that we see has a nine inch wound across his back and a small but similar cut across his rump.  The gash is deeply infected and pouring pus.  No time for sentiment or squeamishness. A local injection dulls a little of the pain and Keith then plunges his bare hand deep into the hole to scrape out the mess. This is then sluiced out with diluted iodine and antibiotics administered.  An otherwise healthy animal that was in good condition may now survive.

The next one will not.  This beast has had one of its back leg tendons slashed though deliberately.  It has been lame, and unattended, for two weeks since the "incident" and is too far gone to save.  Unattractively, this "devil's walking parody on all four footed things" is mocked by children who take amusement from the fact that the animal is limping and grotesque.  The solution to the animal's problem is a bullet between the eyes and the pain is over.  For the country, the solution to hunger and brutalisation will not be so swift.  Without the work of organisation such as the Donkey Protection Trust and SPANA and without the dedication of veterinary surgeons like Lisa and Keith the recovery, when it comes, will take a very great deal longer.

SPANA - Scotch cart
SPANA - RG and lion

There is a brighter side and a treat at the end of the day. Back at the game reserve where we are due to overnight our vets, having already done one day`s work, get down to another.  In the next twenty-four hours they are due to anaesthetise some fifteen lions in order to take blood samples and test them for the tuberculosis that afflicts so much of the big cat population.

Just before dusk we are invited to watch as the first lioness receives the injection applied on the end of a pole through the wire of the management cage.  It takes about twenty minutes for this huge and proud beast to lie down and sleep. Then the professionals get to work, the samples are taken, other drugs are administered and, before she wakes up, we are allowed to get `up close and personal` with the Queen of the Jungle. . Across the park another lioness, Lulu, is nursing her six week old cubs as tiny new generation prepares to take on life in the worldwide jungle.  "Awesome" is the clichť that springs to mind.

After a night by the waters` edge listening to the peacocks screaming we are up at dawn to see Operation Lion continue.  Then, for me, it is a two-hour journey back to Bulawayo airport and the chance to subject myself to further anecdotal education about "the situation" in Zimbabwe. Thirty-six hours later I have driven through more rain from Heathrow back to the House of Commons.  I am filthy, exhausted, perhaps a little wiser. Back to reality. What at present passes for government in the UK is spending more billions of pounds bailing out our own banking system. In Zimbabwe the trillion dollar bills are still not available in the banks and the wireless tells me that the talks between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangerai have broken down again. The expression "lions led by donkeys" suddenly seems still more unfair to both animals.

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