It took me a little while to get back into the swing of things after all the fun and festivities that dominated April. However, there was no easing my way back into things and I hit the ground running with a three-week trip to Zambia and the DRC. My assignment was to collect information and photographic material to document and publicise the good work that African Parks Network (APN) are doing to restore and manage some of Africa’s most valuable and neglected wilderness areas.
My first stop was the Bangweulu Wetlands where an old friend, Ian Stevenson, is managing a community conservation project to sustainably protect these valuable swamps in conjunction with the local fishing communities. Bangweulu is Zambia’s Okavango Delta: a totally undeveloped and neglected chunk of watery wilderness. The birdlife is spectacular and includes reliable sightings of the enigmatic shoebill. Wildlife numbers have been depleted, although we still saw countless herds of endemic black lechwe (estimated to number in the tens of thousands), along with zebra, buffalo, elephant and hyaena! While working with the communities can be challenging and the decision-making process can be excruciatingly slow at times, the wetlands undoubtedly have incredible potential and should take off as a unique Zambian safari destination in the near future.
After my week in northern Zambia, I travelled via Nairobi to Uganda driving from Entebbe diagonally across the country to Arua and across the border to Aru in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). An APN light aircraft with a crazy French pilot, Stephan, met me for the 50-minute flight into Garamba in the northeastern DRC. Garamba is a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest national parks in Africa. It is unique in that it is a rare savanna ecosystem hemmed in by the rain forests of Central Africa. The result is a reserve characterised by vastly differing habitats and an incredible diversity of species.
Garamba was also the last stronghold of the critically endangered northern white rhino. However, with no sighting since 2007, the rhino has almost certainly been relegated to the pages of history by Congolese and Sudanese poachers armed with automatic weapons. The tyrannical Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) retreated into the Congo and set up their headquarters in Garamba in 2005 ensuring that there was no respite for the beleaguered wildlife sanctuary. Not surprisingly, the worst poachers of all are the undisciplined soldiers that constitute the rag-tag FRDC (Congolese army), which is supposedly in Garamba to fight the LRA.
While rhino have been slaughtered into extinction, the elephant population that numbered over 40,000 in the 1960s has been blasted to 3,500 in less than fifty years! There is no denying that Garamba has been ravaged by poachers; however, the park’s wildlife is stubbornly hanging on. When I drove through and flew over Garamba, I saw huge herds of buffalo, elephant, hartebeest, kob, defassa waterbuck and hippo, along with even more spectacular sightings of rare Congolese giraffe, regal lions and an excited clan of hyaena noisily devouring a hippo carcass!
Although Garamba is undoubtedly one of the most difficult, logistically challenging and volatile parks in Africa, APN (somewhat surprisingly) agreed to come in and manage the desperate park. They opened a new tourist lodge in the park this month providing an incentive to dedicated visitors who take the plunge and embark on the adventurous trek into wildest Africa. Garamba is one of Africa’s greatest wilderness areas, so, with the demise of the LRA and the dedication of APN, lets hope that it can finally embark on the long-awaited road to recovery.
After spending ten days delving into the history, challenges and quagmire that constitute Garamba, I bid farewell to the park and its dedicated APN team and headed for South Africa. Knee surgery fixed a 16-month old running-induced ITB injury before I boarded a plane and returned to the brutally hot temperatures of pre-monsoon India where I was reunited with my very understanding wife!
Next month I will be back in Africa when I travel on an assignment to cover Akagera National Park in Rwanda and a carnivore research project in Zambia’s Liuwa Plain National Park. However, before I return to the wilds of Africa, it’s time to do some long-overdue work and get cracking on a growing list of magazine articles with looming deadlines.