By Sport Beattie, CEO
How wonderful it is that the world is finally opening up again and travel restrictions are easing. I am writing to you from Scotland and just down the road, COP 26 has begun. However, less than a week ago I was in Zambia, enjoying a celebratory lunch with the Rangers at our GRI – Field Head Quarters, located on the shores of Lake Itezhi Tezhi, in Kafue National Park.
It was the 24th of October. Independence Day to be exact and Zambia was turning 57! I enquired from one of the older Rangers why the 24th of October was chosen as the day of independence and I was reliably informed that, historically this date represented the start of the rainy season. Indeed, the rain clouds forming on the western horizon seemed to corroborate his statement and, as anyone who has ever lived in Africa will testify, rain means life. It represents new beginnings. It brings new opportunities, and it encapsulates much hope and happiness.
Zambia is a nation of farmers; of people who love the land. For many, including the Rangers we empower, subsistence farming remains the single, most important part of family life in the rural areas. It was little wonder then, why the distant rain clouds were generating a lively discussion around the lunch tables about: which seed to buy; when would be the optimum time to plant and how best to keep the crop raiding elephants at bay this coming season. The latter topic was sprinkled with anecdotes of the recent spate of cattle killings, perpetrated by lions roaming in the local communities. Sadly, those lions (two of them), were killed by the community and the Rangers living amongst the same community members were heavily castigated by the community, for their role in helping to proliferate the apparent abundance of lions in the area. Such are the complexities of modern-day conservation. Wildlife populations pushing outwards and human populations pushing ever inwards. Where the two collide, you get human wildlife conflict. The Rangers sit in the middle of this conflict. On the one hand they represent the wildlife they are mandated to conserve and protect. On the other hand, they also have to empathise with the local communities who are ultimately, their employers. It is a difficult balance sometimes and we don’t always get it right, but the beautiful thing about Zambia and Zambians, is there is always a sense of forgiveness and a cheerful, try again spirit which prevails. It is just one of the many things I love about the country and its people.
A pride of lions which have been targeting the livestock of the farming community
Despite the 40-degree heat, the mood and the banter in the Ranger’s Mess Hall was jovial, to say the least. This was amplified by Zambia’s newly elected President, His Excellency Mr Hichilema Hakainde, Zambia’s 7th President. He was speaking on national television, giving all Zambians (and non-Zambians) great hope about the future. A few months earlier Zambia had gone to the polls and demonstrated, once again, to the world and certainly to the rest of Africa that, Zambia was a shining example of what a true democracy can look like. Zambians have much to be proud of and I believe the future is very bright, indeed – not just for the people, but also for the wildlife and wild spaces. After the Independence Day speech, we watched with great pride and admiration, as our former Chairman, Dr Jacob Mwanza received the Order of Distinguished Service for his selfless commitment and duty to Zambia, which began long before Zambia even gained her independence. Dr Mwanza, such a wise and humble man. I have heard people refer to him as the King maker and I can totally understand why. There is no doubt that his brilliant mind and careful hand has helped to shape Zambia into the wonderful country it has become today. Dr Mwanza presided over GRI during its formative years, giving up a decade of his time to help guide and consolidate our presence in Zambia. I have had the great fortune, on several occasions, to visit Dr Mwanza at his home and despite the many conservation conundrums I would bring to his doorstep, he would always welcome me in for a cup of tea and in his quiet way, he would always help to find a solution. To me, Dr Mwanza epitomises everything that is good and wholesome about Zambia. At GRI, we shall be forever grateful to Dr Mwanza and his family for their ongoing support to wildlife conservation in Zambia.
Speaking of Chairmen…a week earlier, our current Chairman, Mr Robin Miller had invited myself, Jon and James down to Rufunsa Game Management Area (GMA), to assess the ongoing progress of the GRI – Rufunsa Conservation Project. Jon and James (GRI - Chief Operations Officer and GRI - Resource Protection Director, respectively) had not visited the area before and so, when Robin casually mentioned that we would also be deploying a Ranger patrol team deep into the heart of the GMA and would need to access the area via one of the back roads, a little red warning flag went off inside my head.
Map View of the Rufunsa Game Management Area
You see…a few years prior, when we were first scoping out the landscape to ascertain the Threats and Needs in relation to Rufunsa GMA and the long-term feasibility of resuscitating the area Robin had extended the same casual invitation to me. Little did I know back then, but when Robin Miller casually says: we are going into the bush; what he really means is: we are going DEEP into the bush, be prepared! Usually, I consider myself a bit of a bushman, or at least a bush lover, but after two days of relentless hacking through seemingly impenetrable thickets in the stifling October heat, fording near impossible/impassable river crossings, dealing with stinging tsetse flies and sweat in the eyes, even I was relieved to finally catch sight of the cool flowing waters of the mighty Zambezi River. What an adventure! If you ever want to bond with someone, share some biltong and endure a bit of hardship together.
Over the years I have learnt a great deal from Robin in terms of good governance, organisational management, financial controls, strategic thinking, etc, etc - but it was during those two days, whilst off-grid in the Rufunsa valley that I got to learn a lot about Robin himself and what will always be etched into my memory is his deep knowledge and passion for Rufunsa and its people. Robin has been visiting the area since he was a young boy. He knows everyone and everyone knows (and loves), him and his family. Robin has seen Rufunsa change from one of Zambia’s prime wildlife strongholds, where lion, elephant and black rhino roamed aplenty – to an area which, a decade or so earlier was mostly devoid of any wildlife. Thankfully, through his tireless efforts and those of other local stakeholders, including Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ) and Bio-Carbon Partners (BCP), Rufunsa GMA had somehow managed to cling on to the map, as a protected area and survive through the worst of the poaching years.
‘Stubborn’ - the resident elephant bull of Milala camp who was sadly poached before the project started
When I first set eyes on Rufunsa, I saw Africa, as it must have been hundreds of years ago, albeit this time it didn’t have the teeming herds of wildlife like it would’ve had back in those days, but there was enough track and sign to confirm that, with a bit of additional protection, a full recovery was indeed, possible. Most importantly, as we discovered on that foray into the interior, the habitat was still intact, and it was this critical piece of the conservation jigsaw that was the deciding factor for us, as GRI to commit fully to finding long-term support for this ancient landscape.
Enter Charlie Ross and the good people of Jackson Hole. Not long after our Rufunsa adventure and just before covid in early 2020, myself, Rachael and Robin had the opportunity to travel to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to solicit support from some amazingly kind and generous benefactors. Critical seed funding was secured and the GRI – Rufunsa Conservation Project officially germinated into reality. In partnership with CLZ and BCP a new intake of Rangers was selected from the surrounding communities. The raw recruits were sent to the Ranger Training School in double quick time and returned a few months later, as a professional and cohesive anti-poaching unit. Kitted out and fully motivated these Rangers were deployed into the area to begin the arduous task of patrolling every corner of the 3,000 sqkm landscape. Their mission was simple: cover as much ground as possible and flush out the poachers. The Rangers have been relentless in their pursuit of this objective and as you will read below, the results are already beginning to show. I commend them for their efforts, as patrolling in the foothills and valleys of the Zambezi escarpment is no easy feat!
And so it came to be that, two weeks ago – myself, Robin, Jon and James plus the Nkupe Patrol Team entered the thickets of Rufunsa GMA, once more! Armed with sharpened axes, machetes, tow ropes, high-lift jacks, plenty of drinking water and a large packet of biltong we were keen to see how things were progressing at the sharp end of conservation. Following a brief stop at the Janeiro Patrol Base, which was being constructed by CLZ, with support from JICA (Japanese International Cooperation Agency), we continued onwards, penetrating deeper into the GMA. Despite a few of the tracks being slightly overgrown in places, it was nothing like it had been a few years prior. Equally as contrasting was the notable increase in the number of fresh tracks and signs of elephants. Their footprints were everywhere! Well-trodden pathways veered off at every angle, suggesting that the thickets and mopane forests were now popular feeding grounds for the pachyderms, as well as many other species of animals, including lion, leopard, buffalo, kudu, bushbuck, warthog, baboon, hyena, civet cat and even hippo!
Between mouthfuls of biltong, Robin and I continually looked across at each other and nodded our heads in quiet disbelief at what we were seeing. Neither of us wanted to get too excited, but the transformation, in terms of presence of wildlife compared to what we had seen on our last visit, was nothing short of amazing! Whilst we were seeing a lot of sign and catching the odd glimpse of a duiker bounding away, or a warthog trotting off with tail erect, we were not actually seeing the game. Granted it was the wrong time of the day and no sooner had Robin remarked on this point than we came around the corner and lo and behold, there in front of us was a very thirsty and fearsome looking vanguard of about 50 x buffalo. A stand-off ensued. We held our position whilst they jostled a bit and stared at us down their noses. Actually, the buffalo were quite relaxed, which was a good sign they felt safe. Encouragingly, there were also a number of young calves embedded amongst the throbbing mass of black beasts. Rufunsa was revealing some of her hidden gems to us. What a privilege, indeed!
Now obviously, the wildlife hasn’t suddenly multiplied to these respectable levels in two short years. Wildlife goes where it is safe and what is very clear to see is that the wildlife feels safe enough to return to Rufunsa and begin calling it home. It is this inflow of excess wildlife from neighbouring sanctuaries like the Lower Zambezi National Park which will definitely help to bolster and catalyse the exponential growth of the original resident wildlife populations in Rufunsa.
Just before sunset we reached the drop-off point for the Nkupe Patrol Team. We bade our farewell to them, as they set off with much gusto and enthusiasm, on their 10 x day patrol. Nothing was said in that moment, but I know with all certainty, seeing that six-person patrol team (which included a female Ranger), walk off into the sunset to continue with the ongoing mission of protecting Rufunsa, gave all of us a great sense of pride and commitment to purpose.
Sunset at Rufunsa
Well into the dark we arrived at the Zambezi River and boarded a patrol boat, which would take us to ‘Milala base camp’. We travelled upstream. Despite being mobile on the river, the air was still warm on our faces, almost hot in places. Starlight shimmered off the eddies and swirls as the Zambezi forced itself through the gates of what can only be described as Devil’s gorge. The water appeared as black and uninviting as old engine oil. There was an ominous, eerie feeling in this narrow gorge of solid rock. Fall in here and you would be swallowed up by the river, or a crocodile, or both! Robin, who was our coxswain and a seasoned user of this part of the river, skilfully navigated his way through the gorge and onwards to the reed channels, which marked the entrance to ‘Milala base camp’. Finally, after dodging a few hippos and the odd sand bank, we reached the relative safety of Milala.
Milala means Palm tree in the local dialect. I refer to it as a base camp, but it is actually Robin’s private residence, which he has built up over many years of hard work and which he kindly allows GRI to use as a launchpad for our support into the area. Located on the banks of the Zambezi River, it is the southern-most tip of the GMA and represents the lowest corner of Zambia. A short distance across the river is Zimbabwe (Chewore safari area) and a few kilometres downstream is Feira, an ancient trading post where Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique all join at the hip. It is also the place where we have rescued more orphaned elephants than anywhere else in Zambia due to high levels of human-elephant conflict, but that is a story for another day.
After a welcome swim in the pool and a hearty meal, we gathered round the fire to unpackage the day and compare our thoughts. All of us were hugely impressed with what we had seen whilst traversing through the GMA. The abundance of tracks and signs, which we observed was clear evidence that wildlife was returning to the area. The Rufunsa APU (anti-poaching unit) were doing a great job! Our job was to see to it that, this effort was amplified with additional support. We spoke about how we could best support Conservation Lower Zambezi to help secure the GMA, which represents the eastern flank of the proposed Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ) for the possible reintroduction of black rhino back into the Lower Zambezi National Park. We spoke about the need to work with all partners and build momentum on discussions focusing around a Trans-frontier conservation area, spanning Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia (ZIMOZA). And of course, there is no campfire discussion one can have about wildlife conservation without also talking about the local communities and the benefits they need to realise, if we want wildlife and wild spaces to survive and thrive deep into the 21st century. In short, we spoke about a lot of exciting things, but we all agreed that, right now the key focus was to consolidate our (GRI, CLZ and BCPs) presence in the area. Get some more ‘boots on the ground’; get the basics right and the rest would follow.
As I lay in my tent that night, listening to the reassuring call of a friendly Fiery-necked Nightjar I felt really encouraged and excited by what lay ahead for Rufunsa and our role within it. Sure, there was still a long way to go to restore Rufunsa to her former glory, but the trajectory of the project was heading in the right direction, and I got to share a bit more biltong with my Chairman, Mr Robin Miller. To fall asleep with gratitude is a beautiful thing. To do it in the presence of the mighty Zambezi is on another level.
The moral of my rather long-winded update is this: regardless of which river you choose to navigate in life, remember there will always be narrow gorges and turbulent rapids to overcome. Make sure you have access to the necessary wisdom and seasoned experience to help steady the ship and guide you through. ‘No ordinary Chairmen’ have worked well in my case.
As we head rapidly towards the Festive Season, may I take this opportunity to wish all of you the very best for the remainder of 2021.