Looking After Luangwa
1. Touchdown in Zambia
It’s Sunday morning and I am sitting in a small, twenty-seater plane on my way from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, to the remote town of Mfuwe in the east of the country. Looking down to the ground far, far below me, I start to wonder if those tiny dots I can see below could in fact be elephants or hippos, and wondering what the next two weeks has in store for me.
I’m a Discovery and Learning Officer for ZSL London Zoo, and when I’m not teaching education sessions at the zoo, I spend some of my time helping out with a conservation education project in the North Luangwa National Park in Zambia. This, however, is the first time I have actually been to Zambia, and I can’t contain my excitement to be nearly there.
We touch down at Mfuwe airport at 1pm, and I am met by a super-friendly guide from the tourist camp where I will be spending my first night, before I start work properly tomorrow. I bundle into the four wheel drive vehicle with two other guests, and we set off on the 45 minute journey to the camp, bristling with anticipation as our guide tells us we might even see some animals on the way!
Sure enough, after passing through the small roadside shacks of Mfuwe town, we see yellow baboons, a Thornicroft giraffe, and even an African elephant. It’s strange to think that less than a day ago I was back in grey, rainy London, and now I am travelling along a dusty, orange track in the sweltering heat of the midday sun, in the heart of Africa.
As if I needed any reminder of how far I am from home, the first thing I see on my arrival at the camp is an elephant and her calf standing right outside my tent. After waiting cautiously for them to amble away, I go in and put down my bags, but there’s no time for hanging around, as I’m being picked up soon to go on an evening wildlife drive, and get a taste for what the Zambian bush has to offer.
2. Safari Sights
We set off in our safari vehicle and make our way towards the gate to the South Luangwa National Park, but before we even arrive there we see a herd of elephants crossing the dried up river in the distance. There must be at least seven or eight adult females and youngsters all crossing in a long procession. The sun is getting low in the sky, and there’s a dusty haze in the air, and I almost can’t believe they’re real.
Over the next four hours, as day turns to night, I am lucky enough to see giraffes, baboons, various antelope (including impala, waterbuck and puku), zebra, vervet monkeys, hornbills, hippos (my favourite!), crocodiles, a fish eagle, elephants, and to top it off, a pride of lions. I head back to my tent very tired, but very, very, satisfied and happy.
It’s easy to think that these animals are everywhere in Zambia, but that’s not the case. They are only here because the area is protected from human activity. In other parts of Zambia, even in areas just on the outskirts of the Parks, people never encounter wildlife like this. Most Zambian people living in cities, towns, and even villages and rural areas, may never see an elephant, zebra or even an impala, even though it’s hard to imagine when you’re here.
Parks like the South Luangwa National Park and the North Luangwa National Park, where I am heading tomorrow, are safe places for animals to live, where they are protected from human threats, such as pollution, habitat destruction, and of course, poaching. However, when people do not have the opportunity to see these animals and wild spaces for themselves, this can lead to a loss of appreciation for them, and a lack of understanding of their importance. This, in turn, can mean there is even less incentive to look after them.
That’s why I’m so excited to travel to North Luangwa tomorrow, as I will be spending the next two weeks there, observing and helping out with the Conservation Education Programme, Lolesha Luangwa (meaning ‘Look After Luangwa’ in the local language, Bemba).
The programme has been running for over ten years now in its various incarnations and aims to educate local school children and their communities about the local environment and how important it is, giving them practical ways to look after it and help protect it for the future. In particular the project focuses on black rhinos, as these were reintroduced to North Luangwa only 11 years ago, having been poached to extinction in the nineteen seventies and eighties.
But for now it’s off to bed, as I need to be up at 5am tomorrow for the final leg of my journey on to North Luangwa…
3. Flying High
After a night of weird and wonderful sounds coming from just outside the tent (hippos I suspect, as we’re right next to the river), I reluctantly heave myself out of bed at 5am, wash, pack and head out for breakfast. I wolf down a slice of toast and peanut butter (keeping an eye out for the cheeky vervet monkeys that are hiding in the trees around us and who, I’ve been told, will pinch my food if I’m not careful!), and catch my lift back to the airport.
I am met there by Ed, Project Leader (and pilot) of the North Luangwa Conservation Programme (NLCP), who has come to pick me up in a tiny four-seater plane, and will be flying me to Marula Puku – the NLCP base in the heart of the North Luangwa National Park. This is where he and his wife, Claire, the NLCP Technical Advisor, live with their three children.
I am so excited! I have flown in an eight-seater plane before, but this feels a lot smaller. As we rise over the landscape, we leave behind the towns and villages, and head deeper into the National Park. I can see the town dropping away, the buildings getting sparser and sparser, and fewer and fewer signs of human activity, until all I can see is wilderness below me and all around.
Ed enthusiastically points out elephants, a herd of buffalo, and even a pair of mating lions, and swoops the plane down low for us to get a better look. I don’t really want this flight to end, but eventually we approach the landing strip at Marula, and it’s time to descend.
We trundle along the runway to a halt, hop out of the plane, into a car and drive the five minutes to the headquarters. There we are greeted by Claire. It’s great to finally meet her, having only been able to communicate by email and Skype for the last six months.
We catch up quickly over coffee, but there’s not much time to chat, as I’m off now to the nearby schools for two days with Michael, one of the Conservation Education Officers for the NLCP, and he needs to get going!
4. The Road to Chama
Michael is from Mukungule, to the west of the North Luangwa National Park (NLNP), and each week he sets off from home on Monday, picks up his equipment and heads out on the road for the whole week, travelling from one school to another. His job is to communicate the importance of the NLNP and all the wildlife in it, and why it needs protecting to the local school children who live on the edges of the park.
On the three hour drive to the first school we chat about all sorts of things; his job, my job, the project, schools, conservation, and Zambian life in general. We discover that there are a lot of similarities between our roles – we are both trying to engage and inspire the next generation about wildlife and conservation, just in slightly different settings! Of course, there are a lot of differences too. The schools here don’t have the same kind of resources as they do back in the UK, which makes the teachers’ job and Michael’s job a lot more difficult. He tells me that sometimes there are over 100 children in one class. Something I can’t quite imagine (yet).
As we drive further towards Chama, the district we’re visiting, the roads get bumpier and bumpier. Michael tells me that when the rains come each year in January, the area becomes lush and green, and the dips in the roads are where rivers flow across them, meaning it’s impossible to drive to these schools for almost half the year, until the rains stop and everything dries up again. I can’t quite imagine this right now, as everything is so dry and dusty.
Still, we eventually come across the Luangwa river, and Michael lets us stop at a safe place so I can see one of my favourite animals – hippos! They are right in the river below us, but fortunately the steep slope means they can’t climb up, as they are big, potentially dangerous, animals. There are lots in one place at this time of year as there’s not so much water and they have to crowd together. It’s fun to watch how they interact – nudging each other out of the way, grunting, and having the odd little skirmish.
We hop back in the car and drive across the river (that’s how low it is). When it’s full of water this river is vast, but right now it’s mostly sand on the dried up river bed, with a trickle of water running through. On the other side the dense bush starts to open out, and we gradually start passing human settlements and tiny villages. Everyone is so friendly, and as we pass through we are met by beaming smiles and enthusiastic waves. I can’t help but smile and wave back!
5. Back to school
As we pull up at the first school the children crowd around the car to meet us. Although my presence is something of a novelty, they are also excited to see Michael as they clearly love his lessons. These Grade 6 students (aged 12-13) are almost at the end of their Lolesha Luangwa course. They have been studying all year, having had about twenty conservation lessons from their teacher in school, and three specifically about rhinos from Michael and Sylvester, the Conservation Education Officers. Today, Michael is teaching his last rhino lesson to these children, which is all about how to look after rhinos and help protect them.
I sit in while Michael teaches his lesson, and watch how the students respond to it. Although they have a small classroom and not enough tables and chairs for everyone, they are all listening and taking part. In fact, the lesson is so popular that children from other classes are trying to sneak in and watch through the window! We later find out the children and teachers had come in especially for the Lolesha Luangwa lesson on their day off, as it was in fact a holiday. This already gives me an indication of how much everyone enjoys the course, and how important they think it is to be involved.
Once the lesson has finished we stop for a quick photo with the teachers and some of the children, say our goodbyes, and jump back in the Land Cruiser to drive over to the village where we will be staying that night.
When we arrive at this village Michael and I get a chance to talk over the lesson and how it went. This is one of the reasons I’m here in Zambia – to talk to Michael and Sylvester, the Conservation Education Officers, and discuss ways in which the project and the lessons can be made even better than they already are. It’s important for the project that we constantly try to improve, so conversations like this are part of the process for finding out what things are working well, so we can keep doing them, and which are not working so well, so that we can find ways to make them better.
We discuss some changes we think need making to the lesson for next year, and then it’s time for dinner. We get back in the Land Cruiser for the last time that day and drive over to the other side of the village to meet the family with whom I will be spending the next two nights.
6. Mapping Minds
After spending my first night with my host family in the village, I feel as if I am really starting to experience Zambian culture. I have eaten a traditional meal of ‘nshima’, which is made of ground up white maize and reminds me of sticky rice, with chicken and beans (I am told that normally people don’t eat much meat, so the chicken is probably for my benefit, but actually I like the beans best – they are delicious!).
I’ve also washed using the traditional method of splashing yourself with warm water heated over the fire, and used a traditional long-drop toilet, so I am feeling like a pro! Last night I slept on a mattress on the floor of the food storeroom, but that was all I needed to get a good night’s sleep before I set off the next morning, ready and raring to visit more schools with Michael.
At about 5am I hear the sound of a bell ringing, and then again at regular intervals until school starts. Apparently this is the call for the school children to get up and clean the school before lessons begin. After a hearty breakfast of peanut butter on home-made bread, Michael and I set out to our first school of the day, Chifunda School, which is just around the corner from the family’s home.
This school is bigger than the one yesterday, with six classrooms instead of two, set around a central area. We meet the class teacher and have a quick chat, before we make our way into the classroom to set up. Once Michael has got the portable generator up and running, in order to power the projector for the presentation, we are ready to meet the children. As they make their way in I realise that there are a lot for the size of the classroom.
By the time they are all in the desks are full, and there are children sitting on the floor and standing at the back against the wall, and wherever else there’s space. All in all I count over eighty children in a room that should seat around thirty. Nevertheless, the students appear ready and eager to learn, and wait patiently as their Conservation Teacher gives out their activity books, which they fill in every time they have a Lolesha Luangwa lesson, so that they have a record of everything they’ve learnt at the end.
Today, Michael is teaching the same lesson that he taught yesterday, but this time we have decided to try and evaluate what the students have learnt. So we start the lesson by doing something called ‘personal meaning mapping’, where we write the words ‘Helping Rhinos’ on the blackboard and ask the students to think of as many words as possible that link to it in some way.
We then write the students’ ideas down on the board so they can see how much they already know about the subject. This word association is quite new to the students, so they take a while to warm up, but eventually a few students put their hands up and tell us their thoughts. I write these down on the blackboard and take a photo as a record.
Michael teaches the lesson, going through why rhinos are important for a healthy ecosystem and to provide jobs for the local community. He talks about the ways that people can help rhinos, by educating their community, not buying bushmeat (wild animal meat), and reporting poachers to ZAWA (the Zambia Wildlife Authority).
At the end of the session we run the personal meaning map activity again, and it is really good to see that the children are immediately able to add extra things to the list. This suggests that they have learnt something from the lesson.
However, this is just a trial of the personal meaning map activity, and I think it will be better to adapt it slightly in the future, getting the children to write down their answers on paper, rather than getting them to put their hands up, as I think this will give us a more realistic idea of what they have learnt.
7. Mapping more minds!
After the morning lesson we travel for an hour or so to the next school, Kasela, and repeat the lesson again in the afternoon. This time we try the personal meaning mapping again, and it’s interesting to see the difference between the two schools.
The most widely spoken local language here in the Chama district is Senga, but most students speak some English (it’s the national language), and lessons are taught in English at school after a certain age. The students at this school don’t seem to be quite as confident at using English as the children this morning, and they find it harder to express their ideas.
Nevertheless, they come up with some good suggestions, and just like before they are able to come up with more detailed answers after the lesson, suggesting that they learned something during the lesson.
After a long day we make the hot and bumpy drive back to the family’s home in Luelo village, where I am to stay a second night, before heading back to the NLCP headquarters the next morning. This evening there is a bit more time to spend getting to know the family.
I spend a couple of hours sitting out at the front of the house, chatting occasionally to the mother of the household and some of the local women who are congregated by the kitchen. The children of the family and a group of other children from the local area are also hanging around. Most of them speak pretty good English, but are shy around me and don’t want to talk at first. However, when I ask them to sing me a song, I can’t stop them, and they sing at the top of their voices! Later on I eat a delicious meal of fish and nshima, and watch a nature documentary with the family on TV, before heading to bed early as I know I’ve got to be up at the crack of dawn tomorrow.
8. Rush Hour
The next day I awake again to the sound of the bell, and heave myself out of bed to meet the ZAWA Officer (Zambia Wildlife Authority) who is picking me up to take me back to the headquarters. What I hadn’t realised is that I would be sharing the ride with a group of ZAWA wildlife officers (also known as ‘scouts’) who are on their way out to start one of their patrols in the National Park, protecting the rhinos, elephants and other wildlife from illegal poaching.
Choosing to stand in the back of the truck with the scouts to try and get a better view of the park, we set off along the dusty track back into the North Luangwa National Park. We make our way firstly through the more open and populated Game Management Areas on the outskirts of the Park, where people live and grow crops and catch fish from the river, and where some animals can be hunted legally (as long as you have a license to do so), into the more densely vegetated Park itself, where no hunting is allowed at all, and no people live.
At one point we stop in the middle of the sandy river bed as we have a puncture, but the scouts all get out and within minutes the tyre has been replaced and we’re on our way again.
Gradually, as we get further into the Park, I start to see more and more wildlife all around, from storks and hornbills, to puku, impala, waterbuck, kudu, zebra, a family of warthogs, and even a herd of elephants.
The animals scatter in all directions as we whizz along the track at speed, not stopping for anything. To me this is an amazing wildlife watching experience, but for the ZAWA officers this is their commute to work, and they have places to be!
As we draw nearer to the North Luangwa Conservation Programme headquarters at Marula Puku, even the ZAWA officer who has not blinked an eyelid at any of the animals we’ve seen so far gets excited. He points into some nearby bushes and exclaims “Leopard!”, and I just have time to see the leopard in all its glory, before we have rattled past at high speed and it has disappeared into the undergrowth.
I arrive at Marula exhilarated and excited, and I can’t wait to see what the next few days have in store for me.
9. Learning About Luangwa
After a quick coffee and a bite to eat at the nsaka (a grass-thatched structure supported by poles, with low mud walls and open sides) I get a chance to check out my accommodation for my stay here, at the North Luangwa Conservation Programme (NLCP) headquarters at Marula Puku.
I have a lovely stone cottage all to myself, with a double bed and a desk, with a separate shower and toilet block a few metres further along the river bank. When I’ve unpacked and made myself at home I head out to have a much needed shower. It takes a bit of getting used to at first as the building is completely open on one side. But it doesn’t take long, as I quickly begin to realise that this is perhaps the best view I will ever have whilst sitting on the loo!
Feeling fresh and full of energy I meet Claire, the NLCP Technical Advisor, back at the nsaka to have our first proper chat since my arrival. It’s really great to speak to her and find out all about the North Luangwa Conservation Programme. She explains that the Luangwa valley was once home to the biggest surveyed herd of elephant in Africa, and its third largest black rhino population. However, over the course of a single decade these populations were decimated by hunting, until by the late 1980s there were only a few elephants remaining, and no black rhinos left at all.
It was at this point that the NLCP was started up. Claire and Ed took over as project managers in 2007, and the work of NLCP has expanded to cover 21,000km2 of land (the size of Wales), which includes the National Park itself (4,600km2), and all the Game Management Areas which surround it.
Under their management black rhinos were reintroduced back into North Luangwa, and there are now thirty-two altogether, which are heavily protected from poachers. It’s a huge responsibility and both Claire and Ed are incredibly busy, training, managing, and coordinating Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) teams to patrol the Park and GMAs, tracking the rhinos and arresting any poachers they find along the way. Alongside this they also run the Lolesha Luangwa Conservation Education Programme for the schools surrounding the National Park.
We talk through the plans for the next few days and decide that it’s important to focus on re-writing the course materials for Lolesha Luangwa, since last year’s feedback from the students and Conservation Teachers was that the level of English was too difficult in some parts of the Activity Book.
There are 74 languages spoken in Zambia, but the main ones spoken around the North Luangwa National Park are Senga and Bemba. The Activity Book is written in English as this is the official language in Zambia, and it would be too expensive to translate and print the book in two other languages. But since most people only speak English as a secondary language, it is important that the exercises in the activity book don’t rely too heavily on English, and can be understood and completed without needing to be fluent.
In the afternoon I meet Maddy, who is a volunteer and has been helping with the schools’ visits to the park with Sylvester (the Lolesha Luangwa Officer), over the last few weeks. Sylvester is taking his Grade 12 maths exams so I won’t meet him until later in my stay. As the school park visits are a new addition this year, it’s important to think about what is working well and what is not, so the schedule and the activities can be tweaked and changed if necessary. Maddy has already suggested some changes which Sylvester is going to test out with the children coming in a few days’ time, so she updates me about this and we talk through some other ideas for the park visits.
Claire and I agree to spend the next few days working on the Activity book and the Teacher Conservation Guide, which is the accompanying teachers’ handbook, which will also need updating once the Activity Book has been rewritten, to reflect the changes that have been made.
10. Wild Life
Together Claire and I spend the next three and a half days working on the changes to the course materials, and I gradually start to become accustomed to the routine and way of life living out here in the wilderness of North Luangwa. In the morning I wake up early with the rising sun, have a shower before the heat of the day kicks in, and then head over to have breakfast at the nsaka with Claire, Ed and the children. (Once or twice the hyenas manage to get into the food storage area in the night and make a mess, so there’s a bit of clearing up to do first!)
After breakfast it’s a short walk over to Claire and Ed’s office (about ten metres away), where we work until lunchtime, and then we head back to the nsaka for a slap-up lunch before returning to the office for the afternoon. We are literally in the middle of the wilderness, and although it sounds like a fairly average day at work, we are surrounded by wildlife. Occasionally I have to pinch myself as I look up from my laptop and glance out of the window only to see an elephant standing right outside!
After a while I start to get used to this, but on my first day it’s quite a shock! I’ve been warned to be careful and always check for elephants before leaving any building, but when I see one right outside my bedroom door on the first morning I am genuinely terrified. They are huge, powerful animals that could crush a person with ease. I’m told they don’t generally attack people, but if you startle them and they charge towards you, then they can cause a lot of damage. What’s more is that they don’t stomp around loudly as you might imagine, but instead are almost silent as they move, so you can be completely unaware of their presence until they are incredibly close. However, the one outside my bedroom simply has a munch of some leaves on a nearby tree and trundles slowly away, so I have nothing to worry about!
I also have to get used to the heat. On a couple of days it reaches almost forty degrees in the shade, so I have to keep remembering to drink water so I don’t dehydrate. In the evenings when the sun goes down at about 6pm, it cools down to a pleasant temperature, and I sit with Ed and Claire in the nsaka and learn more about the project and hear some amazing stories about life in the bush. On one occasion Claire recalls camping with some friends and waking up to a herd of buffalo stampeding around their tents, and the next day seeing the footprints of the lion that they must have been running from, right outside their tents!
I then have to make my way back to my room in the dark, so I carefully shine my torch back and forth checking for any animals that might be lurking, as I make my way along the path. I then quickly brush my teeth in the open-sided bathroom, occasionally stopping to shine my torch out across the river bed when I think I hear a rustle, and head back to my room.
Most nights I wake up at intervals to the sound of the various animal noises. Sometimes I can easily identify the sounds – an elephant stripping leaves from a nearby bush or a lion roaring in the distance, for example. But sometimes they are less obvious and my imagination runs riot with hyenas, porcupines, leopards and buffalo all sniffing around outside my door.
In the mornings I try to work out what might have been there from the footprints in the sand, but by that time they are mostly obscured by the prints of the birds that have been pecking around since sunrise. The only one I can pick out for sure is an elephant footprint, which is pretty obvious as it’s so big!
11. Big Yellow Truck
The following week I meet Sylvester, who has finished his exams and is now back at work. We catch up as soon as possible and discuss how things are going generally, before focusing in on the schools’ park visits that he has been running for the first time this year. I am eager to know how they have been going and what he thinks of the new ideas that Maddy has suggested. Sylvester is keen to try them out, so we decide to speak to Maddy in the afternoon to work out how to fit them in to the schedule, as the next Park Visit is tomorrow and we need to have a plan!
By the end of the afternoon we have come up with a good schedule for the newly revised park visits, which includes Maddy and I running one or two activities. Maddy will deliver the new, more student-led activities that she has developed about the rhinos in the park, and I will run a game to demonstrate how animals and plants in an ecosystem all depend upon one another.
The next morning Sylvester gets up early to go out and pick up the children and teachers from their schools in the huge yellow truck that is used for the park visits. There are twenty students taking part from two schools, and each group of ten students has a teacher accompanying them. While Sylvester makes his way out to the schools, which are a good 3-4 hours’ drive away, Claire and I meet up to discuss the monitoring and evaluation of Lolesha Luangwa, and talk through all the methods we want to use this year and next, in order to find out how well the education programme is working.
By the afternoon, Sylvester and the students have made it back to Marula Puku, so I climb up into the truck and find a seat in amongst the children before we head out on the afternoon game drive to try and spot some animals.
I’m really pleased to notice straight away that the children are using the spotter sheet I helped to put together, to look out for animals as we drive out into the bush. In fact, I notice that they have already seen some animals on their journey here, which is great, but I am hoping that they will notice the difference between the number of different animals they spot outside the park and inside the park, as we want them to think about the reason for this later.
Unfortunately we don’t see a rhino on our drive, but we do see all sorts of animals that the children and teachers have never seen before, and everyone is really excited. In fact one of the teachers says to me that he hadn’t realised how big a zebra was until now, as he had only seen pictures and thought they were much smaller! Being there first hand to see the reactions of the students and teachers is really valuable as it reinforces to me just how important these park visits are.
About half way around we stop at a safe point and the children get out to stretch their legs and take in the views. We are standing on the river bank and the sun is beginning to set, so it’s a beautiful scene and we take the opportunity to get some photos of the group.
Eventually we pull up into the Bachelor Camp area at Marula Puku, where the students will be staying for the next two nights. After a tasty meal of nshima with goat stew, Maddy leads some icebreaker activities with the children, which are a great opportunity for the children to get to know one another and start to think about some of the things they are going to learn about over the next few days.
12. Looking After Luangwa
I spend the next day and a half on the park visit with the students, and it’s a fantastic experience. The students take part in interactive games and activities both in and out of the classroom to learn about the National Park and the rhinos in it. Then they visit the control room, airstrip, and workshop and meet some of the staff who work there, to learn about the different jobs that people do in the National Park and what’s involved.
In the afternoon the students make a poster to take back to school showing how important rhinos are to their community and how to look after them. They then finish off the day with a game of football, until everyone is exhausted and ready for dinner.
After dinner we carry out a personal meaning map activity with the children to find out what words they associate with North Luangwa National Park. Sylvester did this with the students at school before they left as well, so we can see the difference in the words they used before and after. We notice straight away that they have used a wider range of words, and words that show a deeper understanding of the concepts they have been learning about during their visit, which is great.
By this point everyone is incredibly excited as the Zambian national football team are about to play, and the match is being shown on television. So everyone crowds around a tiny TV in the classroom and there is a lot of cheering and whooping as the Zambians lead their team to a victorious win.
In the morning it’s time for the students to get their certificates for taking part and head back to school. After we have said our goodbyes the children get back into the big yellow truck, and as we wave goodbye we hear the sounds of the children singing a song about conservation as the truck disappears into the distance.
I’ve almost come to the end of my time here now. It’s been an amazing two weeks, and I have loved every minute of it. But it has not just been fun, it’s been really useful for me. I have had a chance to see the education programme in action and meet the people involved face to face, and we have almost completely re-written (and hopefully improved) the course materials too.
As I say my farewells to Sylvester, Michael, Claire and Ed I’m really sad to leave. It’s an amazing project, which is making a huge difference already, but I know we’ve got lots more work to do to keep improving it, and with any luck I’ll be back here again in the future to keep up ZSL’s involvement!
by Ruth Desforges, Discovery and Learning Officer for ZSL London Zoo