Stepping Up Security

(This article was originally published in The Horn, autumn 2014. Author: Claire Lewis - Technical Advisor, North Luangwa Conservation Programme) 

As I sit at my computer for several hours a day (because that’s what my conservation job is) analysing data and churning out reports with statistics, trends, numbers, anomalies and significances, I still find it hard to believe that – within my lifetime – Zambia has lost 90% of one of Africa’s largest elephant herds (estimated in 1973 in excess of 100,000 in the Luangwa Valley alone) and all of the continent’s third-largest black rhino population (around 12,000). Quite simply a wholescale slaughter of these two species. Yet we are facing the same threats again. So what are we doing to stop it? 

In 1974, two years after being established as a national park, North Luangwa National Park (NLNP) was declared a ‘wilderness area’ to be left untouched by man. This was a planned strategy in contrast to the management policies of its southern sister – South Luangwa National Park – where elephant numbers were controlled due to their detrimental effect on vegetation. The North Luangwa elephants were to be left alone, and monitored to establish if they would decrease naturally. But the experiment failed as NLNP became lawless and poaching overran the wildlife. Elephant numbers decreased, that bit was right, but populations of all large herbivores plummeted and, in during the poaching epidemic of the 1970s and 80s, black rhino were extirpated.

There are very few national parks in Africa, or even the world, as undeveloped as North Luangwa, but the long-term (now in its 28th year) North Luangwa Conservation Project partnership between Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) has led to NLNP being, arguably, the best managed and most secure national park in Zambia. NLNP is a spectacular wilderness and anyone who has visited cannot fail to be impressed by its vastness, its wildlife, its landscapes and its vibrancy. Today it remains, in essence, true to its wilderness roots but is now afforded the protection it deserves, driven largely by the presence of those curious pachyderms. Elephant numbers have increased and are stable and 25 black rhinos have been reintroduced since 2003 – the biggest translocation of its kind ever undertaken on the continent.

NLNP covers an area more than 4,500 km², but NLCP facilitates protected area management operations over an area nearly five times that size (> 21,000 km²), including the surrounding ‘buffer zones’ or Game Management Areas. At the heart of efforts to protect the elephants and rhinos in the North Luangwa ecosystem are the ZAWA Wildlife Police Officers and village scouts from communities adjacent to the Park, who carry out the law enforcement patrols and apprehend poachers. Together they form an integral part of the anti-poaching effort in the ecosystem. But it is becoming increasingly necessary to focus efforts not just on the ‘boots on the ground’ but to pursue intelligence-fed operations that target strategic hotspots, areas, villages and people. It has come down to an individual scale, not an ecosystem scale. Such efforts are intensive. Lots of resources are channelled towards small intelligence and investigations teams to catch the bigger fish who do not set their poaching feet inside a protected area. They are the middle men, the buyers, the facilitators, the bad guys.

NLCP can’t abandon its traditional approach to anti-poaching though. It is still necessary to deploy and mobilise the >60 four-man 10-day long patrols it supports every month to cover as much of that 21,000km² as possible. But more and more resources are being swallowed up by specialised units to mitigate the influencers and source of the scourge rather than the impoverished local residents they recruit to carry out the dirty work. In 2014, NLCP has directed more than ever to intelligence and investigations support. A training programme beginning in September will tackle upgrading a group of 36 men into a specialised Rhino and Elephant Protection Unit as the rapidly increasing demand for ivory and rhino horn is made worse by increasingly sophisticated poaching methods utilising helicopters, night-vision goggles, high-calibre weapons, and every means available to meet the lucrative demand from Asia.

Zambia’s reintroduced black rhino population has not, yet, experienced any successful poaching in NLNP. The NLNP fledgling population is isolated and remote but it is considered only a matter of time before the demand for rhino horn is such that even comparatively small returns will be worth the risk. The escalation in poaching needs to be addressed with an equally rapid escalation in law enforcement before it is too late and Zambia is faced with the possibility of losing all of its black rhino again. North Luangwa National Park plays a vital role for the future of this endangered species in the country, as well as on a regional scale. Focusing law enforcement efforts on this mega-herbivore inherently safeguards all other species and habitats for the benefit of the overall integrity of the larger ecosystem.

So NLCP focuses on anti-poaching patrols, training, technical support, and most importantly facilitating and fundraising for initiatives to stay one step ahead, as much as possible. I am proud and privileged to be part of this rhino reintroduction project, and there are now 34 roaming this wild and remote Park. Here’s some more statistics: the Zambia Wildlife Authority officers tasked with the protection of this fledgling population have observed and photographed these rhinos over 3,000 times in the last decade, representing an almost impossibly intense security and monitoring effort. But at the same time they have recorded a 10-fold increase in poached elephant carcasses mirroring the catastrophic rhino figures being released by the South African conservation agencies.

Will the younger generation of Zambians living on the edge of NLNP care about the survival of black rhinos if they don’t grasp the global significance of the loss of the species, when so many other priorities take over their lives?

I don’t know but I do know this: the local school children we brought into the Park today for their first-ever visit to NLNP saw a black rhino, so make that 3001 sightings. And maybe that is the most important sighting of all because now they know; now they have seen what all the fuss is about; now they can believe.