After the inspiring meetings with the people from VisionZambia and their projects (read about it here), we went on our way to Kafue National Park. This national park is the largest park in the country and one of the biggest in the world. With the size of 22,500 sq km, it is almost as big as Belgium! Lonely Planet mentioned that the northern plains resembled the Serengeti; showing a vast number of grazing animals and that it is a great place to spot leopards. You can imagine our excitement to get there. We stayed at a place called Roy’s campsite, a camp just outside the entrance of the park, right next to the Kafue river. Hippo’s floated around in the water at about 20 meters from our tent and we learned that these animals are actually quite noisy! When one starts grunting (which happens regularly), the whole group grunts in response. Really funny!
We had planned to stay in this area for several days, partly for tourist reasons, but also because we thought it might be a good place to start a project. Coincidentally, we happened to camp at exactly the right place to start our research in the area. Roy turned out to be one of the most important figures in the area concerning conservation. He is in a governmental council that decides about encroachments in the park, plus he was one of only two people sent from Zambia to a southern Africa ivory trade convention in Namibia. Besides having Roy there to answer a lot of our questions, there was also another camp placed a few meters from our campsite. This was a Panthera research camp, home for over two years to Kim (cheetah project director), her husband Jake and their kids. Jake wasn’t there at the time, as he was on an anti-poaching patrol in Angola. However, we got to meet Kim (New Zealand), Rico (New Zealand/Dutch) and Anna (United States) with whom we spent a brilliant night around the campfire. Kim showed us her amazing guitar skills and tried to convince Lars to play. He had to promise her that he wouldn’t come back before he could play at least one song! That’s one thing he’ll need to be doing back home!
Kim also provided us with a lot of information about the area and the research they do. Plus, she gave us the contact details of other people in the area. Firstly, we went to meet Lyndon and Ruth; a couple from the UK who had been in Malawi for several years working for an anti-poaching NGO. They decided to leave and start their own business here in Zambia. They lived in Nalusanga (the entrance village of Kafue) for half a year, while setting up a lodge. This is 18 months ago, and the lodge they have built looks great. As soon as they start making profits, they want to spend it on (among others) anti-poaching measures.
Secondly, we received the contact details of Jeni from Game Rangers International, who we will have to meet some other time, unfortunately. But one of the things she has set up is a Women Empowerment Group, where the women use garbage and make it into beautiful ornaments to sell.
Then finally we spent a day with Mulyo, a very enthusiastic and opportunistic man with a vast amount of knowledge which he loves to share. He offered to come all the way from Lusaka (about a 4 hour drive) to answer all the questions about the region of Kafue NP we could think of. Very kind of him! Before he arrived we sent him a long list of questions and the following day we addressed them all.On the receiving end, we listened and wrote down as much as we could. At the end of the day, we not only acquired a lot of information but also a deep respect for this man. Apparently, he worked himself all the way up from a child in a poor rural family to the head of a resource management department for a whole province and more. As you can imagine we will cherish our relationship.
Let me tell you what we have learned from all of these people combined. First of all, Kafue National Park is surrounded by Game Management Areas which are supposed to function as a buffer zone. Here, the main activities are game hunting, fishing, lodges, and some photographic safari opportunities. For all these activities permits are necessary and there is no farming allowed. The main difference with the actual park is that there is no hunting allowed in Kafue NP. After these so-called GMA’s there are the Open Areas. This is where villagers live and are allowed to do farming etc. Now, one of the first problems we heard about is encroachment. People from outside are sneaking into the GMA’s and are setting up major farms, thereby slashing and burning a lot of woodlands, and scaring animals away. This encroachment is illegal, but because it is in the GMA and not in the park, the responsibility of law enforcement is unclear. They need approval from the highest director in the government to evict these people and a lot of time passes before this happens. In the meantime, the original inhabitants of the GMA’s, the ones that were removed and placed on the edges, they are angry. “If the government doesn’t punish these people, why shouldn’t we just move back in?” One of the original nine GMA’s has already disappeared because of this problem. And the GMA we visited is quickly moving to this point as well.
Another problem is, as usual, money. There were several money stories to be heard. We heard about the game fee the hunting concessionaires need to pay, which is high. But it has become so high, that the hunting operators cannot afford to hunt in a sustainable way, where, for example, only old/sick animals are shot. Now they will hunt everything, thereby depleting the resources. Secondly, this game fee money is not distributed properly. Let’s say a hundred people work in a hunting GMA of which 25% is government employed and the rest is from the local community. The game fee is distributed the other way around; 75% goes to the government and only 25% to the community people*… So that’s one part of it. (Edit: these are not numbers that are factually checked, they are to give an idea of what is going on).
A lot is involved in managing such a giant park, e.g. fire management, animal count, anti-poaching units, research, etc. But first and foremost a comprehensive management plan and as far as we heard (from several sources) this is currently lacking, for the plain reason that the management team lacks either the education and/or the resources to change this. Their vehicles are broken, or they simply don’t have the money to buy fuel. An the Rangers wear backpacks and clothes that are falling apart.
All these elements combined have resulted in a park that could be so much more than it is now. There is so much potential for conservation and development that you can feel it! Take one of our experiences for example: on our second day we decided to visit the National Park. To get to Busanga plains (the Zambian Serengeti according to Lonely Planet), we had to drive over 130 km’s inside the park. The nearest affordable campsite from Busanga, though, was three hours driving back the way we came from… So there is basically no place for budget-travelers to stay near the main attraction of the park. There were lodges of course, but these were for the rich people, the ones that are flown into the park. This is one major missed opportunity and a very frustrating one for us.
Normally driving 130 km’s through a game reserve takes us, well.. about two days? Because we stop for every single animal we come across, including birds. In this park however, it ‘only’ took us about six hours. Because, there basically weren’t any animals besides a few puku’s and impala. And that while driving past a river, and thus a constant water source, the whole way and through a lot of different habitat types. It just seemed wrong. How is that possible? When we finally got to the plains, which I should mention, were majestic just for its expanse, there was one small herd of wildebeest and one small herd of puku’s. Afterwards, we heard we were a bit unlucky, because normally you can find buffalo herds as well, but it was definitely not what we were promised and it just didn’t seem right either. Luckily, we saw a lioness with a cub on our way down there, and on our way back she was joined by two other lionesses. So that made our day.
The people, this place and its potential inspired us to start drafting a conceptual plan. What do we propose to do in and around Kafue NP if we end up starting a project in this area? We want to act as a catalyst to a situation where local people will benefit from the park. We believe that if they benefit, they do not have to use the resources of the park unsustainably (poaching and encroachment). And even more, they will be the first ones that want to protect its resources. Our main task will be to provide the communities with as many creative and sustainable economic incentives as possible. Our ambitions though extend a lot further. If you really want more detail about this, just contact us :).
Edit: By now we have come up with a project plan, read more about it here: The Platform.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet! We still have two months of travelling left through Zambia, Botswana and Namibia to gain more inspiration, other perspectives, learn or even find a better location to start a project! Maybe this blog has inspired some ideas in you as well? Some ideas or suggestions you would like to share? For example, how will we give these people a better live? Or maybe you would just like to comment on our adventures? Let us know in the comment section below.