In our series of profiles of people in the safari industry, we talk to Phil Jeffery and Tyrone McKeith about their passion for the Kafue National Park in Zambia and the challenges it faces
Jeffery & McKeith Safaris – in the Kafue, a park that was dear to both their hearts growing up.rom a friendship born at university, and a shared love for Zambia and conservation, Phil Jeffery and Tyrone McKeith joined forces to establish a safari company – the aptly titled
As well as running two bush camps in remote areas of the park, Phil and Tyrone are championing the conservation of this fragile ecosystem.
How did you get into the safari business together?
Phil: I was delivered in Zimbabwe but have lived in Zambia my whole life. Born to a wildlife-biologist father, I was blessed with a childhood spent in the wild areas of Zambia. I began guiding aged just 18, with my first job being in the Lunga area of the Kafue National Park.
Tyrone: I’m from the UK but spent much of my childhood travelling the world with my wildlife-enthusiast father, for who Zambia held a special place. I was fortunate to spend my school holidays working in the Kafue, thanks to family friends who owned safari camps there. This gave me the impetus to follow my passion for wildlife, conservation and ecology.
Fate brought us together. Despite our shared background in Zambia, we didn’t meet until our first day at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, at the University of Kent, when, at an introductory lecture, we discovered we shared a passion for Kafue. While at university we never spoke about joining forces – this came several years later over a few beers and a handshake on the Busanga Plains.
What is the ethos of J&M Safaris?
To not try to re-invent the wheel when it comes to a classic Zambian safari, and to offer a truly personal and passionate wildlife experience. The owner-run safari industry that Zambia is traditionally based on is not that easy to find anymore – we aim to fill that niche in a national park that few people know about. With conservation values at the very core of what we do, we hope that guests leave having thoroughly enjoyed themselves and appreciating that they have been a part of something special in a recovering wildlife area.
Why is Kafue so special?
In a nutshell, it has many of the very best things that make a great safari: ultimately, a great wildlife area must be aesthetically appealing; it must offer a true wilderness experience (no minibuses and crowds of vehicles at sightings); the wildlife must be varied, with rarities and abundance in good balance (think roan antelope); good sightings of the more high-profile species (leopard, lion and elephant are in particularly good number) and it must not only feel wild but must be wild. The Kafue is absolutely vast, unfenced and still largely unexplored.
What are your top three tips for visiting Kafue?
- Don’t rush: spend at least three nights at each camp or area.
- Relax: the Kafue has lots of amazing wildlife and fewer visitors… so just take it easy and enjoy the experience of having a safari experience to yourself.
- Seek local advice: do not believe everything you read online and get advice from people who have been there recently.
Why did you choose the Musekese and Ntemwa-Busanga regions for your camps?
Musekese was discovered after consulting with anti-poaching officers. We learned of an area they referred to as ‘Musekese’, named after a particular tree that the scouts camped under when on patrol. We slept under the same tree and explored the region to see what it held in terms of habitat and wildlife.
There had never been tourism on the eastern/southern bank of the Kafue River before. Therefore, there were no roads and, historically, just poachers – something we felt that with our presence and positive efforts we would be able to combat. Plus, the ‘Eden’ lagoon, which Musekese Camp overlooks, is the only permanent inland water in the region, making it a year-round magnet for wildlife.
The Busanga is a region that both of us have known since childhood. As such, we had dreamed that one day we would have a camp in the area. The Busanga Plains are vast, but the few camps that were already there were relatively close to each other, so it was important to develop a camp in a more private location but still with the beauty of the plains on its doorstep.
What has been the impact of your camps on the area and local communities?
The major benefit to the local communities has been the employment opportunities it created. The company began with just six staff; today, we number 25. We have also begun to facilitate tertiary learning for some of our staff members.
The change in the area has been unbelievable. Initially, the mere presence of the camp forced poachers to move out. In our first year (2013) we only knew of one lioness – who had just three legs – in the whole area and we were collecting snares from all over. Within two years the lion population had exploded, with at one point 25 known lions seen regularly.
However, after this initial boom, things began to unravel, with our presence no longer enough to deter poachers. Snaring increased again, as did poaching of elephant. This is what prompted the creation of Musekese Conservation. The results of which are once again being felt with rebounding wildlife populations.
What was the driving force behind Musekese Conservation?
With our conservation biology backgrounds it was always our plan to aid the conservation efforts in the Kafue in some capacity. However, the sharp increase in poaching two years ago was too much to take and we couldn’t sit back and watch the impacts of the indiscriminate snaring of wildlife and killing of elephant.
It was then that we realised we needed to expedite our longer-term conservation plans to help the law-enforcement efforts in the central/northeastern Kafue. With the creation of Musekese Conservation we were able to garner support and funding to facilitate an increase in anti-poaching officers.
The aim now is to help create an intensive-protection (or ‘safe’) zone that we can lock down to keep poachers at bay. This will enable animal numbers to flourish and allow free movement of wildlife across larger distances once again. This is something that has not happened for a very long time.
What are the project’s key initiatives?
- Resource protection: this is based on the understanding that wild areas are not solely pretty places with glamorous animals for foreign visitors to take pictures of. They are in fact resources – assets that are viable business centres for Zambia and her people. However, for national parks such as the Kafue to realise their full economic potential they need to be looked after more effectively.
- Anti-poaching efforts: these aim to tackle the scourge of the illegal off-take of wildlife – a convoluted and integrated issue certainly, but not one that can be tackled solely through education and community programmes. By the time those valuable community-based projects take effect there is the real possibility that there will be nothing left. We must try and tackle the issues from all angles at once.
- Fire: a major ecological unknown is the effect of fire that sweeps through the Kafue, charring the entire landscape on an annual basis. While fire clearly has a role in shaping – and has shaped – the Kafue’s ecosystems, it is not known to what extent it is useful and when it becomes detrimental. By implementing a firebreak network to aid the protection of key areas, we aim to conserve the ecological integrity of the park, with the longer-term aim being to study succession rates in burnt and unburnt control areas to understand the ecological and nutritional values of each habitat under different circumstances.
We are in the planning phase of creating a network of community campsites throughout the park. As well as enabling self-drivers to access the park, creating jobs and raising awareness, it will provide a much-needed presence across a greater area. Needless to say, all revenues from such an initiative would go straight back into the park and communities.
What are the main challenges that Musekese Conservation faces?
Fundamentally, it is a lack of resources – particularly access to long-term funding, which limits what can be done effectively. The challenges are numerous and varied, but we are lucky to have fostered an incredibly positive relationship with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife and this allows us to support their efforts in conserving the Kafue.
This year the region experienced incredibly poor rainfall and is in the grasp of a severe drought. This will increase the pressure on wildlife from adjacent populations seeking food. Extensive burning and the associated habitat degradation also have a significantly negative impact upon wildlife.
But, by far the biggest challenge is the demand for illegal bushmeat. Enhancing relationships with communities and fostering their understanding of the value of wildlife is critical and needs to be combined with extensive boots-on-the-ground efforts.
What does the future hold for Kafue?
The future is bright – and it has been so for several years now. Visitors are increasing year-on-year as more people seek remote and wild seclusion, combined with high-quality wildlife encounters in great camps, led by some of the best guides in the country. Recent interest from a large conservation NGO in Kafue comes from an understanding that the park is not only special now, but that it also has the potential to be a leading light, not just in Zambia but on the whole continent.
(Image credits courtesy Jeffrey & McKeith Safaris and Jeremy Fratkin)