WALK WITH THE ELEPHANTS
Zambia gets tough on poaching
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’
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