AG Secret Season Safari

The fight to save Nsumbu

James Ng’andu takes a deep breath and smiles broadly. I have just asked him what the biggest challenge he faces in his job as a Wildlife Police Officer (WPO) is and he is taking a moment to consider his response.

We are seated in a small office at the local headquarters of the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) in the town of Nsumbu. Outside the temperature is beginning to rise and the town’s residents are busying themselves with their daily routine, which, in this part of the world, revolves around the large expanse of water lapping gently at a nearby jetty. Lake Tanganyika is, for want of a better adjective, huge. It contains an estimated sixth of the world’s surface fresh water, and it’s also the longest freshwater lake on the planet. Its shoreline is shared by four countries; Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and Zambia – in whose far-ranging Northern Province I now sit.

lake

Ng’andu sighs softly and answers my question. “Without a shadow of doubt the biggest challenge we are facing here is inadequate manpower.” He looks crestfallen and is almost apologetic in his response. “It is a very sad fact,” he adds, looking at a map of the area on the wall opposite us.

A WPO for six years, with 15 years of experience in ZAWA, Ng’andu is one of 11 officers in the area charged with policing the 2004sq km  Nsumbu National Park, including just over 80km of pristine Tanganyika shoreline and a 1,6km buffer zone out into the vast expanse of the lake which encompasses valuable littoral zones that are home to some of the best fish breeding grounds. This puts Ng’andu and his colleagues into direct conflict with virtually the entire population of every community in the area, all of which depend largely on fishing for their survival.

village

“Illegal fishing is the main problem we encounter here, even though the issue of terrestrial poaching is more critical,” says Ng’andu. “It’s a huge task we are faced with, bringing the illegal fishermen to book.”

And an impossible task, given that until recently the Nsumbu WPOs did not possess or have access to a patrol boat. “Our other challenge is the lack of resources,” Ng’andu adds. “If it were not for Conservation Lake Tanganyika, we would not be able to police Nsumbu National Park at all.”

illegal-fishing

Conservation Lake Tanganyika (CLT) is a donor and membership-funded non-government organisation established at the start of 2012 by Craig Zytkow, owner of Ndole Bay Lodge, one of the area’s few tourism operations. The pretty lakeside lodge has been part of Zytkow’s family for some 35 years. In the early 1980s this region of Zambia was a thriving local holiday destination, with Ndole Bay and other lodges along the lake an integral and important part of the local economy.

Then came nationalisation and the lodges, Ndole Bay included, were taken from their owners, run into the ground and eventually stopped trading. Zytkow’s family re-purchased the lodge from the government in the late 1990s and six years ago he and his partner Elise Brazier returned to the lodge for what was supposed to be a one month holiday. Instead they breathed new life into Ndole Bay and Zytkow, a marine biologist, soon realised he had to do something to help protect both the lake’s fragile ecosystem and Nsumbu National Park.

Once teeming with wildlife and renowned for its buffalo and elephant, Nsumbu was decimated following the period of nationalisation and the ensuing war in the DRC. In the last few years it has shown signs of recovery with viable populations of species like zebra, roan, sable, eland and hartebeest and healthy populations of some rare species like sitatunga and blue duiker. The park has a big population of hyaena, largely due to its low numbers of lion (there are only four lions regularly seen in the area) and leopard.

nsumbu-wildlife

More importantly, Nsumbu is home to a rare and highly endangered ecoregion of mixed combretum known as Itigi-Nsumbu thicket, which occurs only in this area and a small part of Tanzania. Once an outpost of Zambia’s ill-fated black rhino population, Nsumbu’s Itigi-Nsumbu thicket is unique and contains a large number of endemic plants, making its protection crucial.

sunset-nsumbu

CLT was formed to be that protection and since it came into being the fledgling NGO has supported ZAWA by working closely with its WPOs and providing resources such as fuel and rations, as well as a patrol boat.

“If it was not for CLT we would not be in a position to apprehend illegal fishermen and perform anti-poaching patrols inside the park,” says Ng’andu, highlighting the pivotal role the NGO is playing in supporting the woefully under-funded government body charged with management of Zambia’s national parks.

CLT’s senior conservation officer, Maxwell Beston Silungwe, worked for ZAWA for 12 years before joining Zytkow. He runs the organisation’s office in Nsumbu and liaises directly with his former colleagues.

“We are finding that most of the people we apprehend are engaged in both illegal fishing and terrestrial poaching,” says Silungwe. “Most of the local poaching is subsistence poaching in nature, but we also have commercial poaching being undertaken by heavily armed Congolese gangs. The proximity of the border with the DRC, which is around 30km from here, is a problem for us in this respect,” he adds. It’s a problem that has seen the steady decimation of Nsumbu’s famed elephant population, with poached ivory making its way with relative ease into the DRC and beyond.

ivory-kill

Indeed, the mountain of problems CLT is faced with, not the least of which is finding the $75 000 it needs to cover its operation costs each year, seems, on the face of it, insurmountable. But Zytkow is in this for the long run, as he explains on a reconnaissance drive the following day to the 54 000ha Tondwa Game Management Area which forms the western boundary of Nsumbu National Park.

“It seems like we’re up against it, but we have to carry on. I can see that we are making a difference already, even though this is only our second year of operation,” he says. “Take this area, for example,” he adds, pointing to the huge Tondwa Swamp, which is drained by the Nkamba and Chisala rivers, forming a vast floodplain around the lush wetland which is inhabited by the elusive sitatunga and large herds of puku.

wildlife-police-officers

“This is a vitally important buffer zone for Nsumbu,” says Zytkow. “And with the exception of a small hunting concession with a year-round presence, there has been no-one here to monitor poaching levels. Now, we are working closely with the local Community Resources Board and Village Action Groups to put together teams of village scouts who, under the supervision of a ZAWA WPO, patrol this and the 360 000ha Kaputa Game Management Area that borders the park to the north-west and south-west,” he explains. “Just by creating a presence here we are making a difference, which we are seeing by the poaching paraphernalia we recover on patrols.”

CLT also assists with anti-poaching inside Nsumbu and issues all patrolling scouts with patrol forms on which to record all items of poaching paraphernalia recovered as well as other data on wildlife. The paraphernalia can include home-made shotguns, snares, tiller lamps from confiscated boats and even boat engines. Cash rewards and bonuses are offered for each item recovered, providing added incentive to WPOs and scouts.

poaching-snares

“In addition, the patrol forms are helping us to compile a thorough database that we can use to assess the levels of poaching and recovery in the park,” adds Zytkow.

“We have spent in the region of K80 000 (around $16 000) on ZAWA this year so far, mostly on rations for WPOs and on bonuses for the recovery of poaching paraphernalia, as well as around $4000 worth of fuel for the ZAWA patrol boat. As of 1 June 2013, we had recovered 10 homemade firearms and 1029 snares, and had made nine arrests,” Zytkow says.

poaching-guns poaching-bullets

They may be baby steps in the greater scheme of things, but they are steps in the right direction, nonetheless, and for an organisation that needs relatively little in funding to sustain this momentum, they are impressive.

“Relying on donations and membership fees to keep CLT for the work we are doing is quite scary,” says Zytkow. “But the fact is that we don’t need millions of dollars, just consistent thousands,” he laughs.

And the consistent support of those who are passionate about saving a rare and precious biological wonder under threat.

“You only have to come up here once to experience just how amazing this place is and then you automatically understand why CLT came into existence and what it’s trying to do,” Zytkow says soulfully, looking out over the Tondwa floodplains as the sun begins to dip below the horizon.

Watching as a group of crowned cranes and their wattled cousins bathe in the last gasp of an incredible sunset, I have to agree.

cranes hippos bird

Images Copyright: © Megan Alves

Sharon Gilbert-Rivett (formerly van Wyk)

Africa and its wild places grabbed award-winning writer and film-maker Sharon Gilbert-Rivett (formerly van Wyk) when she was but a babe. Her family hauled her from the UK to Kenya when she was three, to South Africa when she was seven and what is now Zimbabwe when she was 11, before taking her back to Cambridge, the town of her birth, to be schooled. She was pushed into journalism in the early 1980s by her first boyfriend, rock guitarist Phil Collen of Def Leppard. "I used to write him long letters while he was on tour and he nagged me to turn pro, so I did," she says. Sharon returned to South Africa permanently in 1991, trading black leather for khaki and rock magazines for mainstream media. She now writes widely on conservation, eco-tourism, safari and travel and also makes natural history documentaries with her company, Painted Earth Productions.

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