WALK WITH THE ELE­PHANTS

Zam­bia gets tough on poach­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - SUE WATT

THROUGH thorny scrub, we trek for an hour with four armed rangers to reach the ele­phant car­cass. Tinged or­ange from the soil, its bones lie scat­tered, dis­persed by scav­engers. The skull is heavy and huge, the size of a beach ball, but as if made of lead. Then be­gins a de­tailed foren­sic anal­y­sis wor­thy of any crime scene. The shape of the skull proves the skele­ton is fe­male; her teeth in­di­cate she was 27 years old; her de­com­po­si­tion sug­gests she died three years ago. But the clue to her death lies in her tusks. She had none.

Had poach­ers killed her, the tusks would have been bru­tally hacked off leav­ing gap­ing holes, but this ele­phant’s tusks are nat­u­rally ab­sent, as oc­curs some­times in fe­males. To be cer­tain, a ranger sweeps the skele­ton with a metal de­tec­tor look­ing for bul­lets. Its si­lence con­firms she died of nat­u­ral causes.

“In 2013, we had only five ele­phants poached in the park, the low­est in our 20-year his­tory,” says Ian Stevenson, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Con­ser­va­tion Lower Zam­bezi. “Un­for­tu­nately last year was a tough one, with 15 ele­phants poached in the park, all since July. It’s still lower than pre-2012 lev­els but an in­di­ca­tor of the pres­sure on the whole coun­try’s ele­phant pop­u­la­tions.”

On Oc­to­ber 24 last year, Zam­bia cel­e­brated its 50th an­niver­sary of in­de­pen­dence; the for­mer pro­tec­torate of North­ern Rhode­sia be­came an in­de­pen­dent repub­lic within the Com­mon­wealth. It has en­dured some eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal tur­moil across the half-cen­tury, and like other parts of sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa has a trag­i­cally high rate of HIV and AIDS. But com­pared with neigh­bour­ing Zim­babwe it is peace­ful and po­lit­i­cally sta­ble. Al­most one-third of the coun­try is pro­tected by Na­tional Parks and Game Man­age­ment Ar­eas. But con­ser­va­tion comes at a cost. Des­per­ately un­der­funded, the Zam­bian Wildlife Author­ity (ZAWA) needs pri­vate donors and or­gan­i­sa­tions such as CLZ for sup­port; CLZ is based near the west­ern edge of the Lower Zam­bezi Na­tional Park.

It as­sists ZAWA with lo­gis­tics and in equip­ping, train­ing and de­ploy­ing its rangers. Data cap­ture is crit­i­cal to in­form­ing the fre­quent anti-poach­ing pa­trols that sweep the park and its buf­fer zone. Stevenson demon­strates a Google Earth map show­ing each of the rangers’ routes; neon lines splayed across the screen like an elab­o­rate Spiro­graph.

“We have an ex­cel­lent re­la­tion­ship with ZAWA and the chief war­den here, Solomon Chidunuka,” Stevenson con­tin­ues. “That’s cru­cial to our suc­cess.” Also cru­cial are the 12 lodges within the park, which be­tween them do­nate a quar­ter of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s fund­ing. It’s a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship: with­out the wildlife, there would be no tourism, and vice versa. Both need each other. But CLZ also needs lo­cal peo­ple on side or con­ser­va­tion will fail. With about 3000 res­i­dents in the seven vil­lages un­der the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s care and about 2200 ele­phants vy­ing for the same space, their co­ex­is­tence cre­ates per­pet­ual prob­lems.

The crux of CLZ’s com­mu­nity work is the En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­tre, where mu­rals about con­ser­va­tion adorn the dorms and class­rooms. “Get­ting the mes­sage across to the younger gen­er­a­tion is vi­tal,” ex­plains Besa Kaoma, the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tor. “They in­flu­ence their par­ents, their own age group and their fu­ture chil­dren too.” Pupils from 50 lo­cal schools come here for three-day cour­ses on their nat­u­ral her­itage, vis­it­ing the park and the wildlife they’ve pre­vi­ously only ever feared or fed on.

Many of CLZ’s new vil­lage scouts first came here as school­child­ren. Last year, the or­gan­i­sa­tion em­ployed 20 scouts to work along­side ZAWA’s rangers. From Novem­ber to April, they act as a rapid re­sponse unit to de­ter ma­raud­ing ele­phants from raid­ing crops in the fields and vil­lages. Robert Phiri, a proud young scout dressed in cam­ou­flage, tells me how he coped with the dan­gers in­volved. “When ele­phants charge, you must have courage.” He em­pha­sises the word with a beam­ing smile. “You can’t show you’re afraid.”

The ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram in­cludes train­ing teach­ers and scouts in con­ser­va­tion, as­sist­ing in guiding qual­i­fi­ca­tions, help­ing women make hand­i­crafts to gen­er­ate in­come and de­vel­op­ing a cul­tural cen­tre for vis­i­tors. Per­haps the most im­por­tant les­son, how­ever, is teach­ing lo­cals how to live with ele­phants rather than fight against them. We drive to the river­side where women in colour­ful wrap­around skirts tend maize and sweet pota­toes in the fields: a typ­i­cal African scene, ex­cept for fences made of rags drenched in chilli-in­fused oil. Seem­ingly, ele­phants can’t stand the pi­quant aroma of chillies, and CLZ has been spread­ing the word. “I saw ele­phants come to- wards my crops,” one de­lighted farmer tells me. “Then they smelled the chillies and just turned away.”

In vil­lages, along­side tra­di­tional mud-and-thatch houses, we see grain stores, called felum­bus, re­sem­bling gi­ant old-fash­ioned bee­hives smoth­ered with ce­ment. Each holds a tonne of corn. “Ele­phants can’t smell the grain through the ce­ment, so they walk straight past look­ing for food,” ex­plains Stephen Kalio, the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s hu­man wildlife con­flict co-or­di­na­tor. “Vil­lagers make the bricks for the felum­bus and CLZ pro­vides the ce­ment and ex­per­tise in build­ing them.” Lodges get in­volved too, pro­vid­ing used oil for chilli fences and fa­cil­i­tat­ing guest dona­tions for felum­bus. It’s a sim­ple yet ef­fec­tive way of tourism that gives some­thing tan­gi­ble to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties living along­side wildlife.

Lower Zam­bezi’s wildlife is thriv­ing: the ele­phant pop­u­la­tion is sta­bil­is­ing; last year, for the first time, 20 sables were seen on the val­ley floor; elands and, po­ten­tially, rhi­nos are to be rein­tro­duced. CLZ plans an­other op­er­a­tions base at the park’s eastern end, built by An­abezi Lodge, which opened in April last year. On a pa­trol flight to An­abezi in CLZ’s tiny Cessna, we see no poach­ers. The beauty of the park un­furls be­neath us as the Zam­bezi cuts a swathe across the flood­plains in a two-tone land­scape of blue and green. Hip­pos look like bloated peb­bles in the river; rut­ting im­palas re­sem­ble pranc­ing ants; ele­phants’ tusks glis­ten like sabres in the sun.

With 11 huge suites over­look­ing the Zam­bezi and Mushika flood­plains, An­abezi is the park’s most re­mote lodge, and one of its most stylish. Our “tent” comes com­plete with teak fur­ni­ture, in­door and out­door bath­rooms, a re­lax­ing lounge and a vast wooden deck with plunge pool and lounges on which to re­lax and watch the nev­erend­ing stream of im­palas, warthogs, ele­phants and ba­boons on the plain be­low. I take a morn­ing walk with an armed ranger and An­abezi’s manager-guide Matt Porter. We dis­cover leop­ard prints along­side the blood­ied re­mains of an im­pala and watch six bull ele­phants, just 100m ahead, mooching silently to the river. On game

‘When ele­phants charge, you must have courage. You can’t show you’re afraid’

ROBERT PHIRI

SCOUT

drives, we see kudu, fluffy wa­ter­buck, mon­goose, more ele­phants and hun­dreds of buf­falo, while golden ori­oles, lilac-breasted rollers and par­rot-like Lil­ian’s love­birds pro­vide dra­matic flashes of colour.

Dur­ing our sun­set cruise on the Zam­bezi, Porter gives a run­ning com­men­tary. A go­liath heron about to fly is de­scribed as “all cin­na­mon and sil­ver, tak­ing off like a small Cessna”. Nearby, a gi­ant croc on a sub­merged sandbank looks “like he is walk­ing on wa­ter” and ele­phants “trans- form into bal­leri­nas” as they wade into the river. On our last night, I wake to the sound of break­ing branches out­side our suite and can just make out the bulk of a bull ele­phant feast­ing on trees, leav­ing a trail of de­struc­tion. I watch in awe at his power and beauty, then think of the scouts, and of the farm­ers with chilli fences and felum­bus. Living with ele­phants isn’t easy, but living with­out them would be tragic.

Ele­phants gather at the Luangwa River, left; tent deck at An­abezi Camp, be­low left; pool­side dining at An­abezi, right

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