Quietly, after the bulk of journalists has moved on to other things, Graham Rae describes the situation as 15 to one.
That is 15 poachers and one security guard shot so far.
On a still morning near the central Zambian town of Chisamba, it’s hard to imagine, but cattle rustling is a major problem for both large ranches and small farms in this sub-Saharan nation where poverty and hunger are often strong motivators.
“It’s one of the challenges we have,” said Rae, managing director of Zambezi Ranching and Cropping Limited, as he showed a group of international agricultural journalists around the massive mixed farming operation.
Ranch manager Rene Summers said the operation has lost as many as 300 animals to poachers at one time, but things have improved along with the ranch’s security measures.
“We do lose a lot,” he said. “But we also have a lot of security on our farm and I make use of night watchmen, I use on average between 16 and 22 people every night, just to watch my cattle.”
One only has to scan local news reports to know the problem is widespread, with the Zambian National Farmers Union issuing a plea to police last year in the hopes of a crackdown.
But the security risks haven’t deterred people — both international and local — from investing in Zambia’s growing beef sector, which according to data, is growing steadily.
For Rae, Zambia was the obvious choice.
His family had farmed in Zimbabwe for generations, until Robert Mugabe’s land reforms forced him out of the country. Politically stable Zambia offered refuge to him and others as they left Zimbabwe and they put their ranching experience to use.
But it’s not only immigrants who are growing Zambia’s beef sector; native Zambians are also moving toward cattle and ranching.
Sitting under a thatched-roof gazebo on White Farm — named for the colour of its buildings — Jethro Hamakoko’s enthusiasm for both Brahman cattle and storytelling is clear.
An electrical engineer by day, he travels to his small ranch about an hour from the capital city of Lusaka each weekend.
But he too faces many challenges as he expands his herd. Although his farm is only four km from the nearest town, washed-out roads and seasonal flooding mean reaching his property can be a challenge. For much of the year he takes a longer, winding, dirt track, negotiating with a massive Chinese-owned estate farm to use its roads, because the four-km route is impassable.
“The challenges up to now are with the road network, but this is not strange in this part of the world,” he said, noting the bigger difficulty lies in getting his cattle to an abattoir when the time comes.
If it had been up to him, he might have chosen another location, but a complicated system of government-allocated farmland meant he didn’t have much say in the matter. And when he finally received his 120 hectares in 1992, it was virgin brush, not pasture land.
“But there was something driving me, a driving force saying, I want to keep cattle,” Hamakoko said.
He started out with Boran cattle, a compact animal most commonly found in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Later he moved on to Brahman cattle.
“I’ve settled on the Brahmans, I like them. People tell you that… it’s a difficult animal, no good — not true,” he said. “It can resist all sorts of problems.”
And when it comes to animal health, the biggest problem for him and other ranchers are ticks and tick-borne diseases.
“First and foremost the problem is they carry a lot of disease with them,” explained Summers. “As well as the fact it’s not nice to be bitten all the time, so it does affect production and a happy cow is a productive cow.”
In the most grotesque cases, the brown-ear tick will actually eat the ear off by eliminating blood flow, he said, but it’s heartwater that causes the most mortality.
Also known as cowdriosis, nintas or ehrlichiosis, the disease has many symptoms, but it’s the fluid found around the animal’s heart and lungs during post-mortems that gave it its descriptive name.
Anaplasmosis and east coast fever are also problems for producers, which is why ranchers like Hamakoko drive his 147 cattle through a “dip” on a regular basis. Animals are herded through a chute that plunges them into chin-high water containing a parasiticide.
But for the hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers who might have only a few head of cattle and a couple of acres of land, building and maintaining a dip tank is far too expensive to even contemplate. Those producers rely on communal, government-operated dipping stations, which some say are lacking.
In the National Farmer’s Union’s most recent weekly report, the lack of dip tanks in the Manyane area of Petauke District is bemoaned by farmers, who point out their animal losses are very high as a result. Some producers there are attempting to fill the gap using backpack sprayers — a much less effective method.
However, in the central districts of Mazabuka and Chikankata, a dip-tanks rehabilitation program is underway, providing farmers in other areas of Zambia hope that assistance will come to them as well.
Many ranchers, like Hamakoko, have chosen to raise Brahman cattle in an attempt to reduce tick-borne diseases. The accordion-like folds of skin on their necks make it difficult for ticks to reach the animal’s head, while the smell of the sweat gathered there helps repel the anthropoids. Thicker skin also helps prevent ticks from drawing blood.
Back at the Zambezi Ranch, Summers and Rae have chosen to work with Droughtmaster and Beefmaster breeds, both of which are Brahman crosses.
“One of the ways we’ve done that is breeding with good, imported genetics,” said Rae, explaining that the genetic material and embryos they use come from Australia and South Africa.
Finding good breeding stock overall can be a challenge in Zambia. However, a government initiative is aiming to change that.
A cluster of postwar buildings in the central Zambian district of Mazabuka is now home to the county’s first National Artificial Insemination Centre. Thanks in part to $1 million in funding from the Czech Republic, farmers can now learn about artificial insemination and obtain genetic material from several key breeds of cattle free of charge.
The only catch is that farmers must cover transportation costs themselves, which can be difficult for many farmers — if not impossible. Still, staff at the centre say ranchers are taking advantage of the program.
Hamakoko said that he is pursuing every avenue when it comes to breeding a better animal, including reaching out to international breeders and turning himself into a respected resource.
“I’ve got a library just on Brahman in my house; you could read for weeks and weeks and weeks,” he said. “There is always a way to improve.”