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AWAKENING THE SLEEPING GIANT OF KAFUE

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In Kafue, work to protect ecosystems and make locals key partners in conservation is clearing the way for new investment

By the time he was 30, Greenwell Kabinda was one of Zambia’s most notorious big-game poachers, so well known to the authorities that he was on a shoot-to-kill list that very nearly led to his early death.

Today, Green, as he is known, is reformed. Now he commands a force of wildlife rangers dedicated to stamping out poaching and protecting the very animals Green used to hunt for meat, hides, and ivory.

His is a unique perspective. Ask him his regrets, and near the top of the list is what he calls “the great loss” of all the animals that he and his former gang-mates removed from the wilderness around his home, in Kaindu on the north-eastern fringes of Kafue National Park.

“If I compare all the animals that I have killed, if those animals were here today, the number we’re talking about would be double what it is,” he says. And that matters because he and his community are coming to realise the true long-term value of the wild animals they live amongst.

They are part of a pioneering programme that has seen Green’s community take over management of their land and turn it into their own Game Ranch of which they are the direct beneficiaries. More animals could bring more benefits more quickly, from tourists on photographic safaris or hunters looking for extra animals on their trophy quotas.

The Kaindu Community Game Ranch is an example of a raft of new work supported by an international conservation organisation called The Nature Conservancy that aims to strengthen the incredible economic wealth of the 65,000-square kilometre Kafue ecosystem, and showcase its assets to new investors.

“Our motivation for our conservation investments in the Kafue National Park is to awaken this sleeping giant in terms of its economic value and strengthen its ecosystem services for nature and people,” says Victor Siamudaala, Country Director for The Nature Conservancy, which today works in 65 countries worldwide and opened its Lusaka office in 2010.

“This requires strong partnerships between the public and private sectors because the Government faces competing demands on its funding, and it may not be able to capitalise this opportunity on its own.”

And it is a great opportunity. Key to Kafue’s potential to bring more benefits to the Government, investors, local communities and the environment, is tourism.

More than one million tourists visit Zambia annually. Travel and tourism pumps more than ZMK 15 billion a year into the national economy, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Forecasts predict that almost doubling to ZMK 28 billion by 2027. The sector directly employs 115,000 Zambians and indirectly earns 306,000 their daily bread.

Yet only 13,000 of those nearly one million tourists visited Kafue National Park in 2015, according to the most recent annual report from the Ministry of Tourism and Arts.

In fact, fewer than one in ten of Zambia’s international tourists visited the four major parks, Kafue, Mosi-oa-Tunya, Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa. Compare that to Kenya, where one in three international tourists spends time – and money – in national parks.

To entice more tourists to the wilderness, The Nature Conservancy helps source funding that the Government might struggle to find to make improvements that give investors perhaps looking to open a new eco-lodge, or launch a new safari outfit, confidence their money will not go to waste.

Alongside that, projects support local communities to earn more benefits from their own natural resources, to foster a sense of ownership and boost protection of those assets.

That’s why Green and his rangers, all employed from Kaindu’s villages, are patrolling their new Game Ranch. It is also why new Village Action Groups there regularly gather everyone to decide how to spend revenue they now receive from their tourism partner, Royal Kafue.

More than ZMK 400,000 has so far paid to re-roof and paint the two-room school in Misamba Village, and built a kitchen and new bathrooms at a nearby maternity clinic. Next on the list is to connect schools and health posts to electricity.

“People now understand they have to stop poaching so we have more animals to generate us more income, so we can have what we want such as buildings or schools,” says Prudence Mwanza, a Community Liaison Assistant in Misamba.

To the south of Kaindu, near the Hook Bridge on the M9, another major effort is underway to protect Kafue’s ecosystems from another of its major threats: wild fires.

Bush blazes have always been a feature Zambia’s rural areas. Millions of acres of woodlands shade grass that slowly dries to tinder, leading to ferocious fires that march for 100km or more. But today, many fires in this part of the park were started on purpose.

“Fire controls an ecosystem, and what we’re aiming to do is use the destructive power of fire positively,” said Jones Masonda, the Principal Ecologist at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW).

The idea is that by setting a controlled burn early in the dry season, Mr Masonde says, you reduce the amount of dry grass, undergrowth, and fallen tree branches that would fuel intense and unstoppable infernos later in the year.

A team of fire experts from The Nature Conservancy’s chapter in Arkansas in the United States has been visiting Zambia every year since 2011 to train DNPW specialists, rangers, lodge workers, and other stakeholders how to set fires to benefit ecosystems.

“The reaction of guests to an area that’s had a late season fire is one of horror,” says Gil Dickson, General Manager and co-owner of the Kaingu Safari Lodge, a small luxury camp on the banks of the Kafue River.

“They automatically assume that the fire means a permanently destroyed landscape, even though that’s not the case. It’s hugely damaging.”

Mr Dickson and his team of lodge staff and bush guides have all undergone the training.

It teaches how to use special metal gas canisters to ‘drip’ fire along precise lines, and then to control flames with beaters and ‘bladders’ of water worn like rucksacks whose targeted streams stop blazes dead.

“The controlled burns make it easier for tourists to see wildlife, they bring animals out to graze on the grass that grows after a fire, and arguably most importantly, they protect these areas from late season fires,” Mr Dickson says.

Just like the anti-poaching patrols, and the work to increase support for conservation among local communities, the fire training aims to increase wildlife densities, to bring more tourists with more revenue for businesses and communities, and to protect precious ecosystems.

“There used to be this idea that wildlife and National Parks belonged to the government, but Zambians themselves now realise that these are things that they own and can derive benefits from,” says Mina Kasamu, a senior DNPW ranger in Mumbwa working with Green and his Kaindu Community Scouts.

“These really are sustainable resources, when we manage them properly. More and more people are beginning to appreciate that.”

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