The Chimanimani mountains in eastern Zimbabwe, bordering Mozambique and often dubbed a “Hiker's Paradise” for its spectacular rugged terrain, stunning gorges and high peaks soaring to 2,436 meters, is struggling to deal with a new threat that has emerged during the global pandemic.
As travel restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 have mostly kept tourists at bay, the area has been struggling with a surge in illegal mining, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The miners have reportedly been making the most of the lack of visitors, with their illicit activity leaving a trail of environmental destruction in its wake.
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Researchers and activists are sounding the alarm, warning of the grave ecological impacts of illegal mining.
"The waters are being polluted; the biodiversity poisoned; indigenous plants dug up (and) trampled; animals and birds poached; (and) litter strewn all over the mountains," said Julia Pierini, head of the non-profit organisation BirdLife Zimbabwe.
As they follow a gold belt, the miners drain springs, dig up riverbeds, filling the water with silt that renders it uninhabitable by marine life and largely unusable by people, claim experts.
Cutting into caves, the miners also use chemicals such as mercury and cyanide to separate gold from the ore and the soil. The result leaves people and wildlife downstream with highly toxic water, Chief Raymond Saurombe, a leader of Chikukwa Village in Chimanimani was cited as saying.
The illicit activity is being carried out with the collusion of some of the rangers who have been employed by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) to prevent precisely this type of onslaught at Chimanimani National Park, claim activists and even some of the miners themselves.
"For the past couple of years, we have been seeing illegal gold miners in the mountains, but suddenly during lockdown we started to see hundreds of them. Zimparks is recruiting people. They are organising these syndicates," Collen Sibanda, vice chairman of the Chimanimani Tourist Association (CTA), was cited as saying.
One of the miners admitted to the Thomson Reuters Foundation that he had been prospecting for gold in the mountains without a licence since March.
"I thought it was legal because we were working with the rangers… We were given a target, we would sell about 40 grams of gold per day," said the man, adding that as the miners came back down the mountain, the rangers would take the gold and pay them in US dollars.
After August, however, the military and police were drafted in to help the rangers evict the miners.
A Zimparks spokesman said the authority was investigating claims that the park's rangers had participated in the illegal gold mining.
Although Zimbabwe has been struggling in the throes of its worst economic crisis in a decade, young people have been cited as being increasingly hopeful to earn a living in illegal mining.
The population of the area around the Chimanimani Mountains is estimated to be around 135,000, who are still recovering from last year's Cyclone Idai, which wrought $622 million worth of damage.
Previously, gold-panning in Chimanimani mountains took place on a small, artisanal scale, according to a 2016 research paper by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London. However, the present scope of illegal mining is potentially fraught with permanent ecological fallout.