Sunset over the wild Luangwa River

A fiery sunset in Zambia’s flagship national park turns the Luangwa River gold beneath a blood red sky

In mid-January 2017, I headed to Zambia with Grant Burden, Head of Special Projects at the Singita Grumeti Fund – www.singitagrumetifund.org, on an educational visit to share ideas and learn from some of the premier non-profit conservation organisations currently operating in Southern Africa. We spent two weeks getting to know the ins and outs of Conservation South Luangwa (CSL), North Luangwa Conservation Program (NLCP) and Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), as well as attending some informative and collaborative meetings on how to enhance intelligence capabilities to promote greater law enforcement effectiveness.

CSL Detection Dog Unit training

CSL Detection Dog Unit training

Our first stop was Mfuwe, where we stayed at the cheap and cheerful Marula Lodge – http://www.marulalodgezambia.com – while spending our days in the company of the dedicated team from Conservation South Luangwa. It was a productive couple of days spent observing the hounds from the detection dog unit undergoing their training drills, engaging with the CSL senior management staff to learn from their collective experiences, while also finding time to catch up with Dr. Matt Becker from the Zambian Carnivore Program (ZCP).

Under the long-standing leadership of CEO Rachel McRobb, Conservation South Luangwa – http://cslzambia.org – recently underwent a facelift and rebranding exercise to revamp what was formerly the South Luangwa Conservation Society when last I visited Zambia and shadowed the SLCS and ZCP teams on their de-snaring operations and carnivore research projects.

In collaboration with the grossly underfunded Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), formerly known as the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA), CSL was established to stop poaching, eradicate wildlife trafficking and protect South Luangwa’s beleaguered wildlife populations. The organisation actively engages with the surrounding communities, recruits and trains local staff, and focuses on developing and implementing sustainable Zambian-driven conservation solutions.

North Luangwa sees no more than a couple of hundred adventurous tourists per year

True wilderness: North Luangwa receives at most a couple of hundred adventurous tourists per year

From South Luangwa, we took a spectacular two-hour flight in a four-seater Cessna, tracing the Luangwa River all the way up to the Mwaleshi confluence where we swung west and followed this tributary into the very heart of North Luangwa National Park. The Mwaleshi is an absolute Eden with large herds of buffalo and elephant lining its banks as well as big prides of lions and excellent general game frequenting the verdant floodplain.

FZS Base Camp

FZS base camp in the heart of North Luangwa

Our flight into North Park in the Cessna, and again daily at sunrise in the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s two-seater Husky, were highlights of our time in Zambia, allowing us to use the telemetry device fitted to plane’s wing struts to locate and observe a number of the black rhino reintroduced to Zambia after they were poached to local extinction in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Founded in 1986, the ground-breaking North Luangwa Conservation Program (NLCP) – https://fzs.org/en/projects/north-luangwa/ – is a protected area management and law enforcement partnership between Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and DNPW that aims to sustainably conserve 22,000 square kilometres of the greater North Luangwa ecosystem. It is in my humble opinion the leading conservation initiative in Zambia and I would go a step further and say that NLCP ranks amongst the very best protected area restoration programs in all of Southern Africa.

The Conservation Lower Zambezi Dog Unit in action at a road block heading from the park into Lusaka

Conservation Lower Zambezi Dog Unit in action at a road block en route from the park into Lusaka

After three days of productive Lusaka meetings with Vulcan Inc. and members of the top conservation organizations operating in Zambia, the final stop on our Zambian sojourn took us down into the idyllic Zambezi Valley. Having spent three years living and working on the mighty Zambezi, the park remains very close to my heart. I hadn’t set foot in the valley since late 2008, so it was with much anticipation and no small measure of excitement that I returned to my old stomping ground.

Over one hundred elephants were lost in 2016

Over one hundred elephants were poached in Lower Zambezi in 2016

During our time in the Lower Zambezi, we were hosted by Ian Stevenson: an old friend and the CEO of Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ): a non-profit organisation committed to the long-term protection of wildlife in the Lower Zambezi valley.

CLZ – http://www.conservationlowerzambezi.org – was set up in 1994 when local safari operators and other concerned stakeholders recognised the need to provide organised support to the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) to help combat the poaching pandemic that was decimating the wildlife populations of the Lower Zambezi. From its humble beginnings, CLZ has grown and diversified its support activities and protection efforts throughout the wider ecosystem.

Today CLZ assists DNPW with its mandate to protect the natural resources and wildlife of the 4,092 square kilometre Lower Zambezi National Park, while also providing logistical and law enforcement support to the adjacent community-owned Chiawa, Luano and Rufunsa Game Management Areas (GMAs) within the much larger 20,000 square kilometre Lower Zambezi Area Management Unit.

Flying over the Zambezi escarpment and along the swollen Zambezi with its lush green floodplain was a very special experience, although spotting a couple of elephant carcasses from the air also hammered home an important message about the scale of the ongoing poaching challenges facing difficult-to-protect conservation areas like the Lower Zambezi. During our visit, we also had the opportunity to spend time with the new LZNP Canine Unit at an active road block, watching the determined dogs search vehicles for ivory, bushmeat and other contraband.

Throughout our time in Zambia, we took advantage of the knowledge and expertise of our hosts, brainstorming and debating the best ways to identify new opportunities and embrace technological innovations that might help overcome the ever-increasing challenges confronting Zambia and Tanzania’s iconic protected areas. There is no question that our time in Zambia was rewarding and worthwhile with new relationships forged, exciting collaboration opportunities explored and valuable new information gleaned that will help to enhance our Tanzanian operations.

A small breeding herd of elephants feeds on grass on a flooded island in the midst of the Zambezi

A small herd of elephants feeds on grass on a flooded island in the midst of the Zambezi River