By David Banks
The week following our Tanzania trip, we travel down to Zambia’s Kafue National Park, the 5th-largest national park in the world. Include the protected game management areas (GMAs) around the park and you have an area slightly larger than West Virginia.
We decide to drive from Lusaka. A little over two hours via tarmac roads and we hit the park boundary. We still have lots of daylight left, so I’m feeling good. Not nearly so upbeat, our hosts keep talking about the Spinal Road, to be followed by the Kidney Road. We’re unlikely to reach camp until well after dark, they claim.
Six hours later, my spine aching and kidneys crashing from rib to rib, we spot kerosene lanterns on the horizon. Camp at last.
Through three more days of nearly constant driving, we don’t see another vehicle. We do see a few cheetahs and numerous antelopes and elephants. We traverse Miombo woodlands and 10-foot-tall grass, navigating overgrown tracks with the aid of a GPS.
By the end of the dry season, our driver explains, nearly 98% of the grass will have burned, and this is considered one of the major threats to the park. In the past, late-season fires and bulk grazers like buffalo would have created more of a habitat mosaic, with randomly scattered patches of tall grass and lower greenery.
Now, poachers often set early-season fires, but so do Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) game scouts trying to make it easier to catch the poachers. So poaching is a related threat that has been impacting this park for a long time.
During the 1960s and early 70s when our host was a Wildlife Department staffer at Kafue, the park was one of southern Africa’s preeminent destinations. Huge buffalo herds and large prides of lions amazed visitors. The camps, lodges and other park infrastructure were in top form.
But then through the 80s, Zambia was surrounded by countries at war. Rebels from Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Congo all camped in Zambia, a guerrilla retreat of sorts. Insecurity and poor funding allowed Kafue to deteriorate, and the rebels used Zambia as a free-meat market. Animal numbers plummeted, and structures dissolved into the Miombo.
Today, with more game scouts and tourists in the park, animal numbers are increasing. But roads and structures in southern Kafue continue to decline.
Most of the poaching and fire threats come from the expanding villages surrounding Kafue.
On our first day there, we drive to one of the GMAs to visit the chief of the Shezongo people. We meet under a mango tree and retire into his office, a mud-walled building half the size of a Volkswagen bus. I don’t have to remember to bow to the chief, as that’s the only way I can get through the door and into my seat.
We discuss the importance of the park to his people and ask how we can work together to protect the wildlife. His English is not great, and our host speaks only a little Ila, so the chief calls in his second wife to help translate. I say something in English, my new friend translates it to Bimba, and the wife translates it into Ila. Then the reverse happens. Gradually we understand that the community believes in the importance of the park, but wants to get more benefits.
Although the village is supposed to receive payments from ZAWA for local hunting concessions, they have not been paid in over two years, even though they know hunting is taking place. We ask about poaching and the chief indicates that it is occurring, both for the local market and for export to Lusaka. To employ game scouts, they must depend on payments from ZAWA, so it’s no surprise that they have no active force.
The chief then says, “It is hard to stop people from poaching when they are so hungry.” Again, poverty drives the threat.
Matt leans over to me and whispers again, “I’m not sure I can work at this level anymore.”
The next day, we cross the park to visit the chief in Mumbwa. For more than six hours, we weave through grasslands, moving slowly to avoid hidden mud holes hollowed out by warthogs and elephants. Sweat, grass seeds and soot from early fires flow down my shirt, and tsetse fly corpses pile up on the dashboard.
By the time we reach the chief’s palace, we are all a little cranky. We ask around for the chief and eventually find his assistant, who smiles broadly and exclaims, “The chief is in Lusaka.” That’s the problem with the lack of cell phones or radios. Sometimes a six-hour drive leads to nothing.
The assistant, however, quickly pulls together a group of headmen, most of whom speak excellent English. When we ask about their biggest problems, they talk about the need for clean water, a better health clinic, more teachers and better communications. I ask what happens if someone gets sick, or a woman has trouble with childbirth.
One headman says they have to ride on an ox cart to the nearest hospital, a 100-km trip that normally takes 20 hours. Further echoing what we heard on Lake Tanganyika, he adds that often the mother or baby or both will die before reaching the hospital. “An ox cart is not very fast,” he says.
Matt then asks whether they see much poaching in the area. An older headman wearing dark Clark Kent-style glasses, a bright blue tie and blue Converse Chucks becomes very animated as he talks about all the poachers around them. Plenty of elephants and even a large herd of eland are nearby, and we often see poachers, he says.
The chief’s assistant speaks to the headman softly but firmly in Tanga, and others join in, but the headman goes on to say that there are poachers in the village, even some around us. Now the assistant speaks louder in Tanga, and the headman eventually gets the message and stops speaking.
Our conversation moves on, but keeps coming back to poverty as the source of many of their problems. As things wind down, our host, who speaks perfect Tanga, uses it to speak about the importance of conservation. The assistant’s eyes grow big, and the rest of the group laughs nervously, everyone realizing we understood their earlier chastising of the old headman.
We finally exchange polite goodbyes, and then we jump back in the land cruiser for another six-hour dash across the Miombo. My kidneys are yelling, “We can’t work at this level anymore.”
The night after I return to Arusha, we are lucky enough to have a visiting ballet group from Russia perform at the international school. It’s one of those beautiful East Africa evenings. The semi-outdoor venue allows us to see the full moon rising just east of Mt. Meru and to feel cool breezes coming down from the volcano while we watch well-honed bodies move in unison.
This is Africa, however, so the evening is also filled with other entertaining scenes. After a few minutes, my five-year-old son, Cole, leans over and says, “Daddy, I’m tired of ballet. I want to run.” So I stand in the back, one eye glued to the stage, the other watching Cole and other kids chase frogs and climb trees in the moonlight.
At the end of an act, two dancers kiss and then glance at the audience with embarrassed expressions. Two older Tanzanian women in front of me squeal with delight, clapping vigorously for the quality of the acting. As the moon climbs and the wine flows, the intensity of the experience grows, too, until ending in thunderous applause.
People clap partly for the quality of the performance, but mostly because they’re so grateful that these talented artists came to this small yet interesting place in northern Tanzania. A friend turns to me and says, “I’m glad they were willing to come down to this level for us.”
All I can think about is Matt’s whispered comments during our two-week trip, the women riding in ox carts and dugout canoes during childbirth. The juxtaposition of ballet with the all-too-familiar problems of rural Africa feels embarrassing, at best, yet it’s a stark reminder of how complex and nuanced the choreography of our conservation work really is.
There are no simple answers. I’m convinced we must dive deep into the complicated work of communities to ever be successful at protecting wild places. It will not be easy, and the strategies won’t always fit neatly together in some unified and elegant theory of change.
But it’s the level where we need to work in order to ensure long-term success.
David Banks is director of The Nature Conservancy's Africa program. He reports from the field on special places, people and conservation issues in our series David's Dispatches.