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CAMPFIRE programmes have been hailed internationally for the innovative ways in which they have sought to confront the challenges of some of Africa’s most marginal regions through the promotion of local control over wildlife management. In Zimbabwe, CAMPFIRE has been cast as an antidote to the colonial legacy of technocratic and authoritarian development which had undermined people’s control over their environment and criminalized their use of game. This article explores why such a potentially positive programme went so badly wrong in the case of Nkayi and Lupane districts, raising points of wider significance for comparable initiatives. Local histories and institutional politics need careful examination. The first part of the article thus investigates the historical forces which shaped attitudes to game, while the second part considers the powerful institutional and economic forces which conspired to sideline these historically formed local views. CAMPFIRE in Nkayi and Lupane was further shaped by the legacies of post-independence state violence in this region, and the failure of earlier wildlife projects. This range of factors combined to create deep distrust of CAMPFIRE, and quickly led to open confrontation.