The more thoughtful and well intentioned your choices are,
the more satisfying your journey will be.
Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park
by Sue Watt All photos © Will Whitford
Life in the Lower Zambezi: A collaboration of tourism and conservation
In 10 years of writing about Africa’s national parks, I have tried to scratch beneath their surface, to understand the bigger picture of life in the bush beyond the idyllic image of wildlife and wilderness. Who protects the parks and how do they do it? What really goes on behind the scenes of our safaris? I spent a few days with Zambian NGO Conservation Lower Zambezi to find out.
The mighty Zambezi River is famous for its frenetic coursing of Victoria Falls, but there is a quieter, calmer side to Africa’s fourth-longest waterway. It is found in the Lower Zambezi National Park where a broad swath of blue meanders around islands and floodplains generously sustaining a wealth of wildlife. It is utterly beautiful. It is also increasingly vulnerable.
Funding the future
Established in 1994, Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ) supports Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) in
protecting the habitat and wildlife of the park and its surrounding Game Management Areas.
Here, as in many of Africa’s wildlife reserves, tourism and conservation have a truly symbiotic relationship: without the wildlife to draw visitors, there would be no tourism; without tourism to bring in income and safeguard habitat, there would be no wildlife. CLZ was actually set up by lodges in the park concerned by the increasing level of elephant poaching. Of those, eight lodges – Anabezi, Baines River Camp, Chiawa, Chongwe, Mwambashi, Old Mondoro, Royal Zambezi and Sausage Tree Camp – donate a substantial US$12,000 each per year. Various charities and organisations – including Awely, USAID, the Tusk Trust and Save the Elephants – also support CLZ.
Anti-poaching air patrols
Bordered on the north by the dramatic Zambezi escarpment and on the south by the river itself, Lower Zambezi National Park’s valley floor is a magnet for herds of elephants and buffalo, plus hippos and crocodiles, wild dogs, zebras, lions and countless plains game. To help protect all this, CLZ runs anti-poaching patrols on foot and in the air.
Flying in a small – and very breezy – four-seat Cessna with the doors removed to provide clear visibility, I could easily spot the animals below me, even though they looked like tiny toys. ‘It’s easy to spot the poachers too,’ Ian Stevenson, my pilot and the CLZ’s CEO told me. ‘It’s amazing how white stands out when you’re flying, so we can easily see their drying racks or ashes, or elephant carcasses, even when they’re deep in the bush.’
On this flight, we saw no tell-tale signs of poachers, but Ian had previously seen an elephant carcass deep in the scrub, so we went to investigate. A mass of clean white bones, she had died around three years previously and was around 27 years old. Incredibly, the scouts could tell all of this – her sex, her age and her time of death – from her bones and the surrounding vegetation. They could also tell that she had never had tusks, but they scanned her skeleton with a metal detector to ensure she had not been killed by a poacher’s bullet: it remained silent. This elephant had at least died of natural causes, yet there was still something deeply saddening in seeing her carcass – the wasted remains of an animal that once had so much presence and power.
Feet – and paws – on the ground
A staggering 10,000 man days are coordinated in anti-poaching patrols each year, which the DNPW could not afford without CLZ providing training, logistics, food rations, first-aid equipment and assistance in deploying the teams across the park. At CLZ’s base camp, I was surprised to see such high-tech systems for their patrol management in this remote area: a monitoring system using GPS data and Google Earth details all dead elephants found, and also tracks the routes of every ranger patrol.
The work can be dangerous, with rangers and scouts often needing to check out injured animals, respond to gun-shot reports and even having shoot-outs with poachers. Detection dogs help too, trained to sniff out ivory, pangolin scales and other illegal wildlife products, as well as firearms and ammunition. And Specialised Law Enforcement Units are being set up to proactively investigate poaching through informants and intelligence.
CLZ is acutely aware that local communities are key to successful conservation, and work closely with them to limit the impact of human wildlife conflict. Elephants in particular are a force to be reckoned with, raiding maize crops and destroying or devouring essential food supplies in the seven villages within CLZ’s catchment area.
In 2013, CLZ set up a team of 20 village scouts. During harvest months from November to April, they act as rapid response units in fields and villages to chase away marauding elephants. It is dangerous work. ‘On night patrols, they’re covered in mosquitoes and bugs; they can’t see in front of their faces in the maize and can hear elephants all around,’ Ian explained. ‘Then they scare them off with firework crackers and AK47s… I have so much respect for those guys.’
As a way of protecting food stocks, Stephen Kalio, CLZ’s Human Wildlife Conflict Coordinator, has been working with Swiss charity Awely to introduce felumbus – simple yet ingenious devices for storing grain safe from pachyderms’ prying trunks. We walked around a village with several felumbus – taller than me, they look like giant old-fashioned beehives made of brick and cement, each holding enough grain to feed a family for a year. Elephants cannot smell the contents, so walk past oblivious to the presence of their favourite food.
CLZ’s varied work within the communities includes teaching farmers to grow chilli plants as fences around their crops – elephants seemingly cannot stand the smell so leave the maize alone. CLZ is also helping to empower women in the community, teaching them skills and selling crafts through a women’s group called Mbelis. And CLZ runs the popular Rubatano event each year (meaning unity), when communities, lodges, park authorities and CLZ staff all come together to play football and netball, and simply have fun.
Teaching for tomorrow
But the long-term aim of CLZ is to educate local people about the value of Lower Zambezi’s wildlife and the importance of conservation. At Base Camp, I was shown around the Environmental Education Centre, with brightly painted dorms and classrooms where 2500 children come every year. Most have never seen inside the park and only know the negatives about its wildlife. Besa Kaoma, CLZ’s Environmental Educator, teaches them the positives about their natural heritage.
Besa also runs anti-snare campaigns in villages and outreach programs in school conservation clubs. He trains scouts, guides and teachers. But it’s the younger generation that really matters here. ‘Getting the message across to children is vital,’ he explained. ‘They influence their parents, their own age group and their future children too.’
And it’s those future children, whether local or from far-flung countries, who will ultimately benefit from protecting Lower Zambezi’s wildlife for generations to come. In three days, I only scratched the surface of CLZ’s work, but I left astounded by its breadth and complexity, and full of admiration for the passion and commitment of its members.
Sue Watt has been travelling to Africa for 15 years and believes strongly that tourism must benefit communities and conservation. She is a regular contributor to Travel Africa magazine and is frequently published in UK national broadsheets and magazines including The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, and Wanderlust. She co-wrote Footprint’s Tanzania guidebook in 2009 and is a major contributor to Bradt Namibia Guide 5th edition and Bradt Zambia Guide 6th edition. In Australia, she has been published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and Vacations & Travel Magazine. Her articles can be seen at www.suewatt.co.uk.
Visit www.safaribookings.com for a wide selection of trips to Zambia and the Lower Zambezi National Park. Conservation Lower Zambezi’s website is www.conservationlowerzambezi.org.