Managing Fire Preserves Zambian Wilderness

Bringing fire experts from Arkansas, The Nature Conservancy helps pass on best practices to protect an African national reserve from ferocious bush fires.

Uncontrolled wildfires in Kafue National Park ruin valuable wildlife habitat and put off safari tourists, whose visits bring millions of dollars into the national and local economies, provide employment, and raise Zambia's global reputation. By learning how to manage bushfires — encouraging them to burn at the right time, in the right places — the authorities can bring their natural benefits to the ecosystem with few disadvantages. The Nature Conservancy has been bringing fire experts from the USA to train Zambian counterparts for six years now. It is a major programme to protect the Kafue National Park’s ecosystem and businesses in one of Zambia's most important wildlife, tourism, and wilderness areas. The aim is that the Park's resources can provide sustainable benefit. Without this programme, uncontrolled fires may expand, and threaten those resources.

The center of Zambia’s western half is a swath of savannah dotted with low mopane woodland that is home to a high concentration of wildlife: sable antelope, elephant, lion, and, in the Kafue River that slices through the huge province, hippo. It's an ancient landscape that has an ancient way of renewing itself: Fire. Wild infernos have for centuries blazed through here late in the dry season, burning away deadwood and allowing fresh grass and foliage to grow, to renew the ecosystem for its myriad inhabitants. But today, that natural cycle is being interrupted, by humans. 

Poachers smoking out their prey; truck drivers broken down by the roadside brewing tea on open fires as they wait for repairs; a cigarette discarded by a careless tourist: all of these human activities can spark fires. Add to that the changing climate that seems to deliver less rain, leaving undergrowth tinder dry and ready to drive ferocious infernos, and you have the ingredients for fires so intense that rather than renewing the environment, it destroys it. “Fire controls and shapes this ecosystem,” says Jones Masonda, Principal Ecologist at Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife.

What's needed is a way to start controlled fires, early in the dry season, to burn away what fire experts call the ‘fuel load’ and try to contain later bush fires before they run out of control. That's where The Nature Conservancy’s Arkansas Chapter, and its office in the Zambian capital Lusaka, come in. For six years now they have been running a workshop called ‘Fire as a Management Tool,’ designed by some of the USA’s most experienced fire specialists. The most recent was in June this year, when more than 50 people attended the three-day training at the DNPW’s Chunga Training School in Kafue National Park. 

With equipment that The Nature Conservancy provides, trainees from across this ecosystem — rangers, hotel staff, ministry officials, conservationists — learn how to start then manage a fire. They use hand-held wind meters to gauge key weather conditions. They are taught how to deploy ‘drip torches’ — gas-filled metal canisters with special nozzles that allow lit fuel to be dripped along long lines, starting fires — and how to control the flames’ spread with beaters and ‘bladder bags’ of water. They learn the key systems that are needed to monitor where fires have already started, and where they need to be started. It’s an intense few days. 

The workshop culminates in a major practical session. For this year’s training, an area was chosen where thick grass had already grown close to head-high, and was drying fast in the relentless sunlight. The stretch lay between a major road that bisects Kafue National Park, and a large tourist lodge. It was elephant territory, too. The ingredients were there for a very destructive fire. Instead, one was started deliberately. In blocks perhaps 30 feet long, the fire was set, allowed to burn a wide ‘black line’ of grass down to stubble, then extinguished. Then another 30 feet stretch was burnt and put out, then another. This created a firebreak to protect the hotel, and the elephants. 

Central to the training is making sure that smart systems are in place to allow the fires to be set strategically. Stephen Gondongwe is a veteran of these workshops, and now helps run them. He works with Game Rangers International in Kafue, and his day job is managing the paperwork from the tourism companies and hunting firms around the national park requesting a controlled fire near their areas of operation. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that no-one sets any illegal fire, anyhow, anywhere in the park,” he said. “A fire, late in the season, will destroy everything.” 

That’s bad for the ecosystem, but also for the economy. Tourism is the mainstay in the region in and around Kafue National Park, and what draws big-spending visitors here is the wildlife, especially sable antelope for which Kafue is famous. If an uncontrolled fire sweeps through and leaves nothing but charred stubble, “the reaction of guests is one of horror”, says Gil Dickson, manager and co-owner of an upmarket camp here called Kaingu Lodge. “They assume it’s a permanently damaged landscape.” Controlled burns open up the dense bush for better game viewing, and encourage grazers like puku, a tawny antelope closely related to the impala, to congregate where new plant shoots push through recently burned land. “Burning helps tourism,” according to Gil.

Managing fires is a huge task for any authority responsible for a landscape as vast as Kafue  the national park alone is the size of New Jersey; surrounding game management areas quadruple that area. That’s why The Nature Conservancy invites fire trainees from a broad range people living and working in the area, including lodge staff. John Muleka, Kaingu’s senior guide, and many of his colleagues are graduates of earlier workshops. He has worked as a safari guide for close to 25 years, and has seen how the ecosystem relies on fire, but can be consumed by it, too. “We have to do what we can to control wildfires,” he says. “I’ve seen what they can do if they’re left to their own devices.” 

GET TEXT UPDATES*