A swish of acacia branches and a slow crunch of twigs announced the appearance of a looming grey bulk. Straddling the track just ahead, the elephant halted, turning towards us and raising her trunk; she was so close I could hear the hoarse intake of breath as she tasted the air, and see the glistening moisture on her temporal glands – a sure sign she was jittery.
Then the reason for her nerves arrived: a juvenile burst through the brush behind her, and another; eight elephants in all, crossing the trail behind the matriarch as she created a barrier to protect her family. She stood swaying gently for a few minutes, sizing us up. Her grey skin turned gradually to amber as the setting sun lit her face till, with a final snort and a wave of her trunk, she wheeled around and followed her family into the bush. And then I remembered to exhale.
As my heartrate gradually recovered, I reflected on just how precious this nose-to-trunk close encounter really was. Not so long ago it seemed that the elephants of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park might be nearing the end of the line.
The Luangwa Valley, an 800km-long branch of the Great Rift, is a microcosm of the continent – Africa in your pocket. Lion prides stalk herds of buffalo across its plains; impala, puku and waterbuck provide prey for leopard in the woodlands; and the Luangwa River itself snakes across the land like Kipling’s Just So Stories’ ‘great grey-green, greasy Limpopo’, its lagoons lumpy with chuckling hippo and Nile crocodile.
But for the same reason that the Valley is a safari-goer’s fantasy, it’s a magnet to poachers, who devastated animal populations during the 70s and 80s. During that period ivory prices rocketed by over 900% as elephant numbers – and, more significantly, the numbers of mature males with large tusks – plummeted; upwards of 100,000 were slaughtered in the Valley by the mid-80s, leaving perhaps 10-15,000 in South Luangwa. The social and genetic structure of the population was damaged as females were forced to mate with smaller males with less-impressive tusks – today you simply won’t see huge male tuskers here.
Finally the world woke up to the threat and, in 1989, an international ivory trade ban was imposed. In 1992 Zambia publicly burned its entire ivory stockpile – the start of the fight back against poaching.
Chris Breen worked at safari lodges in South Luangwa in the mid-80s, and recalls witnessing the effects of poaching: “I’d see large herds of up to 100 elephants, all weeping from their temporal glands, and frequently heard gunfire in the background.” Now MD of specialist tour operator Wildlife Worldwide, he’s delighted by the visible recovery: “It’s heartening to see more natural family groups, including a greater range of ages.”
Horns of the dilemma
Not all the Valley’s inhabitants made it. In the early 70s, estimates of the Zambian black rhino population ranged from 4,000 to 12,000. By the mid-80s, they were entirely poached out, victims of the lucrative trade in rhino horn used for dagger handles in the Middle East and in traditional Oriental medicines.
In June 2002, a shipment of over six tonnes of ivory was seized in Singapore: the biggest bust since the 1989 trade ban. This haul was the result of an international operation involving both the government-associated Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) and the South Luangwa Conservation Society (SLCS), an independent organisation established and partly funded by the lodges and camps in the Valley. The seizure was a considerable achievement considering the small scale of the combined operation.
Rachel McRobb coordinates the work of SLCS, and highlights the challenge involved: “We have only 12 full-time scouts to patrol over 9,000km of national park. The patrols are tough – scouts spend ten days in the park, carrying all their food, water and equipment – and armed poachers are a danger.”
If large-scale ivory poaching is no longer the huge problem of 20 years ago, poaching for bushmeat is a constant threat. “Commercial poachers penetrate the park, setting hundreds of snares,” explained Rachel.
The work undertaken by SLCS is vital in extending the reach of ZAWA, which otherwise would be unable to protect even a fraction of the park – but it’s expensive. Scouts need training (at around US$1,000 per scout), clothing, housing and salaries.
Rachel recently completed a darting course that will enable her to tranquillise and free snared animals. “Lion, hyena and even elephant get caught in snares set for buffalo or antelope; they can take days to die of hunger or wound infections. Now I’ll be able to dart animals and remove snares; but a single M99 dart to fell a snared elephant costs US$500.”
Then there’s payment for informers: SLCS relies on reliable tip-offs from local villagers to catch poachers – and that costs. The SLCS receives grants from bodies such as the Environmental Investigation Agency and the US Elefence program as well as local lodges, but more is needed.
It’s demonstrating the cost – or the benefit – of the wildlife to the local people that’s key in resolving the problem. Zambia is a poor country (it has among the highest per-capita debts worldwide), and poached bushmeat is cheaper than farmed cattle. In addition, the price of human-animal conflict near the park boundary is heavy: a hungry elephant crossing the river from the park can munch an entire crop in an hour, while predators such as lions kill livestock. To convince villagers that wildlife is worth more alive than dead, organisations like the SLCS need to demonstrate the tangible value of conservation.
Mathews Mbewe, an SLCS scout, has experienced a gradual change in attitude towards the anti-poaching movement. “When we first started patrolling a few years ago, some villagers were wary of us – many poached for meat themselves. Now, people see the benefits – how wildlife is bringing money to the community.”
However, there are other benefits. The lodges that back SLCS also help fund the local Yosefe Primary School, a key resource in a country where many families can’t afford proper education for their children. In Lower Zambezi National Park an education programme has been developed by Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ) – another independent organisation – to show children how conservation, and the income created by wildlife tourism, is sustainable in a way that poaching isn’t.
Tourism is, of course, often a double-edged sword. The village of Mfuwe, just outside South Luangwa’s park gates, is home to park workers and safari guides. In recent years its population has swelled to over 5,000 as workers’ families arrived in search of financial support; undoubtedly, poached bushmeat fills the bellies of some of these – something well worth remembering by the well-meaning tourists who fund the conservation efforts via upmarket lodges.
But there’s much good that visitors do, directly and indirectly. Wildlife Worldwide donates £30 to Yosefe Primary School for each booking, and encourages visitors to bring books and pens for the school. The lodges in South Luangwa help fund the SLCS, while prices at the lodges in Lower Zambezi National Park include a daily bed levy for CLZ. Textile and crafts businesses provide another source of income by selling handmade souvenirs.
It was at a crafts stand in Mfuwe that I saw my one and only rhino; in a poetic touch, it was created from recycled animal-snare wire. But live black rhinos may yet have a future in the Valley: in May 2003, five rhinos were reintroduced to a special enclosure in North Luangwa from South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Another 15 are scheduled to arrive, hopefully creating a viable breeding population.
On my last day in South Luangwa I took a game drive across Lion Plain, an expanse of grassland evoking the savannahs of classic safari lore. The eyes of vast, snorting herds of buffalo followed our jeep; zebras rolled in dustbaths; and an albino baby baboon clung to its mother’s back as the troupe foraged in a small grove. My attention was caught by distant shapes. Numbering perhaps 30 in total, small families of elephants lumbered across the plain, touching trunks in greeting before heading their separate ways.
It’s not the same scene as 40 years ago. But while there’s no magic wand to be waved to end poaching – or habitat loss, deforestation or the other perils besetting wildlife – the SLCS, and other organisations like it, might yet help secure the future of Zambia’s animal treasures.
South Luangwa Conservation Society