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Early this year, police in the Matobo district in Matabeleland South province on a section of Zimbabwe’s border with Botswana, recovered 60 head of cattle that had been stolen.
In July, they and the local crime consultative committee announced that most of the animals could not be legitimately claimed by anyone because they did not have brand marks. By mid-September, the cattle had been moved from a local police station where they were being kept to a government farm awaiting public auction.
“This means 60 head of cattle have been lost,” said Abdul Nyathi, a local cattle rancher. “And that is an unnecessary loss. Someone has lost an animal worth US$400 (around R7 000) just because it does not have a brand to demonstrate they own it.”
Theft of unbranded cattle
He said many Zimbabwean farmers pay little regard to government calls for them to brand their cattle. This is more common among communal producers who collectively own up to 90% of the national herd. This causes a number of problems, such as when livestock are lost or stolen and then found like in the Matobo case, as well as many such instances countrywide.
“In case of theft of an unbranded animal, or when it gets lost and is recovered or found, anyone can claim to be its owner. It’s your word against mine. Farmers learn a quick, painful lesson if they lose their animals simply because they did not brand them – an unfortunate, unnecessary loss.”
Extended branding season
According to the Second Round Crop and Livestock Assessment Report for the 2021/22 farming season, prepared by the ministry of lands, agriculture, water, fisheries and rural development and released in April this year, Zimbabwe had 5,5 million head of cattle in 2021, up from 5,4 million in 2020.
Zimbabwe’s branding season runs from April to August every year. It is set in such a way that it is undertaken during winter when low temperatures minimise the risk of fresh brand marks developing into septic wounds. The government conducts the exercise in the poorer communal sector, but farmers who can afford it are free to do the branding themselves as long as they have a state-issued brand certificate.
After noting that some farmers are not marking their animals, the government this year extended the branding season to the end of September to ensure that as many cattle as possible receive identification marks.
Issuing of brand certificates
“The branding exercise is not complicated at all, which is why I urge farmers to take part,” said Mhlupheki Dube, a livestock specialist. “A farmer just needs to take their identification document and stock card to their nearest civil registry office to apply for a brand certificate. The processing of the application takes a week or so and after collecting the brand certificate from the civil registry office, the farmer takes the document to an iron worker or welder who, in less than 30 minutes, will have shaped the marks into an iron brand.
“The next step is for cattle owners to wait for winter, and brand their animals. Thereafter, they can conclusively identify their cattle as theirs. They can no longer say ‘that animal with the white patch on the forehead and big horns is mine’ or ‘that animal bellowing like that is mine’. It doesn’t work that way anymore. Yes, it can work when herding cattle in the veld, but it is of no use when a cow or bull strays or has been stolen, and upon recovery is in the hands of the police. It is your personalised brand that settles the matter.”
The application fee for a brand certificate is Z$2 per animal, but authorities waived the fee during the April to September 2022 civil registration blitz. The government embarked on a countrywide outreach to process identification documents for as many people as possible, so the registered ones can then register as voters ahead of the 2023 general election. Applications for brand certificates were being processed during the same period, after which the Z$2 fee would be reinstated for those wishing to apply after the end of September.
Branding for disease control
The brands identify the cattle and their owner, village of origin, dip tank and district using a special code. “When cattle diseases break out, it is possible for authorities to use the brand to trace the infection to the area of origin,” said Nyathi, who is also president of the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union, whose members are mostly communal farmers.
“The importance of a brand encompasses much more than showing who owns which animal. It is also crucial in effective disease surveillance and control. Authorities can localise disease control mechanisms to a specific area where such an animal is registered, instead of spreading scarce resources widely, sometimes to areas where there is no infection. That is why we say farmers must take this process seriously.”
Working within the law
The Brands Act of 1900, which had been amended a number of times since promulgation, provides the legal framework for identifying not only cattle, but also horses, sheep and goats. It imposes penalties for alteration or obliteration of brand marks, as well as imposition of authorised brands on animals without government authority.
In terms of legislation, the Zimbabwean police are bound not to clear transfer of ownership or movement of an animal that does not have a clear brand mark.
“However,” Dube said, “because of a disconnect between government agencies, we have seen unbranded cattle being cleared for sale. This is a loophole that leaves room for stock thieves. But it starts with cattle owners, many of whom clearly have no interest in enabling positive identification of their animals.”
Thieves tend to think twice before they drive away an animal with a visible brand mark, knowing that it will be easy for the owner to identify his brand or for police to quicken their investigations in case a stolen animal is found, said Donald Khumalo, former president of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union.
“Rustlers don’t touch an animal they know can easily land them in trouble. Yes, we have had cases when they impose their own brand marks on existing ones. But again, it will be evident that the original brand was tampered with which, on its own, is a crime in terms of the Brands Act. Thieves want everything to be quick and easy, therefore they tend to steer clear of branded animals.”
Cattle branding is a Southern African Development Community (SADC) requirement. It assists in terms of dealing with cross-border rustling, which is what happens between Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland South province and Botswana’s Northeast and Central regions.
Stock theft and measures to curb it through cross-border collaboration, including branding of animals, were among the issues that Zimbabwe president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and his Botswana counterpart, Mokgweetsi Masisi, discussed at the third session of their governments’ binational commission in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, in February this year.
“The response during branding seasons is generally poor,” said Nelson Sibanda, chairperson of the Matobo district Crime Consultative Committee.
“In most cases officials do hair branding, which leaves a mark on the fur of the animal, but not an indelible one. We want them to be more effective and put indelible marks that last for years. This is very important in government’s efforts to promote effective cattle branding and the other benefits arising from that.” – Ian Nkala, Stockfarm