Zambia – Behind the scenes in the Lower Zambezi

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The Lower Zambezi is one of Zambia’s flagship National Parks and arguably its most picturesque, with an abundance of wildlife to be seen between the Zambezi River and the high escarpment beyond. As with so many of Africa’s great sanctuaries, a lot of work goes on to secure the future of its irreplaceable natural heritage. Sue Watt secured a rare insight into the conservation work that visitors support.

LowerZambeziI’m squashed into the back of a tiny four-seater Cessna flying over the mighty Zambezi. There are no doors on the plane – they’ve been removed for optimum visibility – and it feels like I’m soaring through a wind tunnel.  Beneath us, the river flows peacefully, a broad ribbon of blue meandering around lush green islands. From the air, elephants’ milky tusks and the white plumage of cattle egrets, those ubiquitous groupies of the buffalo, are vividly conspicuous in this two-tone landscape.  The countless impala, hippos and crocs, grazing, wallowing or lapping up water, look like little toy models in a picture-perfect scene. But we’re not here to admire the beauty of the African bush. We’re here to look for poachers.

“It’s amazing how white stands out when you’re flying,” Ian Stevenson tells me. “It’s actually quite easy to spot poachers’ drying racks or ashes, or elephant carcasses, even when they’re deep in the bush.” Ian is our pilot and the CEO of Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), a small NGO that is making a big impact on life in and around the National Park.

In ten years of writing about Africa’s parks I’ve tried to scratch beneath the surface, wanting to understand the bigger picture of life in the bush beyond the idyllic image of wildlife and wilderness. So when CLZ invited me to spend three days with them at their base just west of Lower Zambezi, I jumped at the chance.

Established in 1994, CLZ works alongside the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) in protecting the habitat and wildlife of the park and its surrounding Game Management Areas (GMAs) – in all some 9615 sq km. Its projects are supported by various charities including Awely, The Tusk Trust and The International Elephant Foundation. Local companies donate time, goods or services in kind. But it’s the lodges in the Park that are crucial to CLZ’s survival.

Bordered on the north by the dramatic Zambezi escarpment and on the south by the eponymous river, Lower Zambezi National Park is utterly beautiful, with the valley floor a magnet for wildlife. Here, in a perfectly symbiotic relationship, the lodges and the wildlife need each other: without wildlife tourism simply wouldn’t exist, while tourist income provides the incentive for conservation. Thirteen lodges support CLZ, of which eight – Anabezi, Baines River Camp, Chiawa, Chongwe, Mwambashi, Old Mondoro, Royal Zambezi and Sausage Tree – are Platinum members, donating a substantial US$12,000 each per annum and often contributing further in kind or in conservation levies. It certainly is put to good use.

CLZ is acutely aware that, as ever in Africa, successful conservation is as much about communities as it is about fauna and flora. No one knows the problems facing those communities in the Lower Zambezi valley better than Human Wildlife Conflict Coordinator Stephen Kalio. Based in Mushonganende, one of seven villages in Chiawa GMA that come under CLZ’s auspices, his role is to help people live in harmony with elephants rather than in hatred and fear of them.

Since 2013 Stephen has been teaching farmers to produce chillies and make fences using rags drenched with chilli oil. Elephants can’t abide their smell and simply turn away, leaving vital maize crops untouched. New systems of storing maize are also helping, with CLZ introducing felumbus to the villages.

“They look like big termite mounds made of bricks and cement, with a small opening to get the grain out,” he tells me. “They’re very strong.”

We walk through a mud-hut village that seems unchanged for centuries, except for this giant felumbu, far taller than I am and capable of storing a tonne of grain, enough to feed a family for a year. “Elephants can’t smell what’s inside because they’re sealed. So they walk straight past without knowing they’re full of food!” Stephen laughs, delighted at outdoing the pachyderm pests. Chiawa and Old Mondoro lodges offer guests the opportunity to sponsor a felumbu – just US$70 covers the cost of cement, transport and labour, while villagers make the bricks. To date they’ve paid for 30 felumbus, a simple yet tangible way of giving something back to local communities.

Before it can be stored, however, the maize needs to dry. In front of houses we see huge reed mats with kernels laid out in the sun, like giant platters just waiting for the elephants to feed from. Stephen provides ‘crackers’, like loud fireworks, to villagers to scare the elephants away, but more help is needed. In 2013 CLZ employed 20 village scouts who act, from November to April, as rapid response teams in fields and villages to chase away marauding elephants. “We reaped a record harvest last year because of the scouts,” Stephen continues. “People really appreciated that.”

Over dinner in camp Ian describes the dangers scouts face: “On night patrols, they’re covered in mosquitoes and bugs; they can’t see in front of their faces in the maize and they can hear elephants all around. They scare them off with crackers and AK47s… I have so much respect for those guys.”

CLZ’s anti-poaching work is dangerous too, from checking out injured animals to responding to gunshot reports and even having shoot-outs with poachers. The scout teams work in collaboration with ZAWA’s rangers, and CLZ assists ZAWA with training, logistics, providing supplies and rations, and deploying patrol teams across the park.

Our windy patrol flight doesn’t yield evidence of poacher activity, but Ian had earlier spotted an elephant carcass in thick shrub inside the park. With some trepidation I accompany a team to investigate. Three scouts study the elephant’s remains, now scattered by hyena and vultures, and gradually solve the mystery of her death. The acid ring, produced by fluids from the decomposing body that kills all nearby vegetation, has come and gone, indicating she died about three years previously. The shape of the skull and remaining teeth suggest it was a female, aged 27, whose tusks had never grown. It was unlikely she’d been killed by poachers, but to be certain, they sweep the skeleton for bullets using a metal detector. It remains silent. Saddened by the sight of a dead elephant, still I’m relieved she’d died of natural causes.

Back at camp, Ian enters data about the carcass onto CLZ’s monitoring programme and shows me a Google Earth map detailing all dead elephants discovered, together with every patrol route taken by rangers throughout the park and GMAs. It looks like Spirograph on speed.

“Our monitoring system is key to our success in anti-poaching,” Ian explains. “But this stuff (pointing to the laptop and GPS) is just a quick fix for today; it’s not fixing it into the future. Culturally, people here don’t have that luxury of seeing game for its aesthetic beauty: they see it as meat in a pot. Hence we’re focusing on environmental education. That will take generations so we need the quick fix now to make sure it doesn’t disappear in the meantime.”

Besa Kaoma is CLZ’s Environmental Educator. He proudly shows me around the Environmental Education Centre at base camp, with dormitories and classrooms covered by bright murals about wildlife. The centre provides conservation training for scouts, guides and teachers. But the focus  of the education ethos here is on the younger generation. Besa runs environmental outreach programmes in school Conservation Clubs and children from 50 local schools come here for three-day courses, visiting the Park for the first time and learning about their natural heritage.

“Getting the message across to children is vital,” he explains. “They influence their parents, their own age group and their future children too.”

Ivory poaching is more challenging than ever, but future generations have a lot to look forward to here. With plans to reintroduce eland and nyala to the park, the Lower Zambezi’s restoration programme also includes cheetah and ultimately black rhino. Other animals are making their own way back.

“It was my birthday on 28 December and I had a nice present,” Ian tells me. “For the first time in fifteen years of flying I saw four sable on the valley floor from the air and later on, a separate big black male sable.”

Finally, we head to eastern Lower Zambezi to visit Anabezi Lodge, which is funding a much-needed second operations base for CLZ nearby. Guests can walk, kayak or canoe here, but we choose a magical sunset cruise, gliding quietly along the pink-hued Zambezi. Hippos bob up and down, a croc basks on a sandbank next to a goliath heron and elephants saunter calmly into the water right in front of us. This river is the very soul of the park. Long may CLZ be here to protect it.

 

Lower Zambezi voices
Natalie Clark, General Manager, Royal Zambezi Lodge
I have been privileged to live in the Lower Zambezi for six years and its beauty never ceases to amaze me. What makes it unique is the mountainous escarpment, the mighty Zambezi River and the wonderful bush that lies between the two. This natural corridor provides great game viewing all year round and the vast breadth of the Zambezi River provides the natural ‘wow factor’ that many people seek – it’s hard to beat this view!

Grant Cumings  Owner, Chiawa Camp and Old Mondoro
Our family was attracted to the Lower Zambezi not only because as the first operator we had it all to ourselves, but because of its unique and outstanding natural beauty – with the Zambezi River, the escarpment and amazing groves of trees inhabited by majestic eles. Working in co-operation with the authorities, Conservation Lower Zambezi provides vital logistical support for anti-poaching activities and environmental education. Education is key, as ignorance is, in my view, the biggest challenge we face as conservationists.

Flossie Shawa, General Manager, Chongwe Safaris
I was born in Zambia but grew up and completed university in the UK. When I joined Chongwe Safaris in 2009 I had had no bush experience. Somehow I survived my first season in camp and in a very short space of time I had fallen madly in love with the Lower Zambezi valley. Every morning a chorus of birds wakes us up and the delicate dawn light hits the escarpment. By evening, as the sun sinks, the sky is alive with colour. One has to experience the phenomenon of an African sunset for oneself; it is a natural wonder.

 

Protecting Lower Zambezi’s wildlife – 2014: A year in the life of Conservation Lower Zambezi
15 poached elephant carcasses found in Lower Zambezi National Park
8963 man days coordinated in 196 Village Scout patrols and 107 ZAWA patrols
13 poaching suspects arrested; 5 firearms, 118 snares seized
48 drying racks and 66 poaching camps dismantled
2179 pupils from 47 schools involved in CLZ’s environmental education outreach programme
147 pupils from 29 schools visited CLZ for environmental education trips

 

Safari planner
Sue Watt travelled to Zambia with Expert Africa (expertafrica.com), Anabezi Tented Lodge, South African Airways and Proflight.
• Time of year  For keen birders, early in the year, after the rains, when the river is still fairly high and canoes can reach further inland using the channels. There are still a few lodges open at this time, although the majority open in April or later. For those keener on walking and driving safaris, the high season is from mid-April until mid-November.
• Activities  Day and night game drives in open 4WD vehicles, walking safaris, motor boat trips on the main river and in the larger channels, canoeing with a guide in the smaller channels. Most camps have a superb outlook and are usually visited by foraging elephants, so game viewing can be done from the comfort of your verandah.
• Visas  Most international travellers require a visa to visit Zambia. A single-entry visa costing US$50 (£33) is available at Lusaka airport or from the Zambian High Commission (for £35 in London). For the same price you can buy a Kaza Univisa, which also permits entry to Zimbabwe.
• Further information  Bradt guide to Zambia, by Chris McIntyre;  www.zambiatourism.com; www.conservationlowerzambezi.org

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