Black Rhino Expedition in Zambia – Mwabukashani rhino
Guest blog post written by Kate Oliver, Education Officer at ZSL
I look out of the window of our tiny four-seater zebra-striped plane and can’t believe my eyes – below us are miles of beautiful forest and grasslands, dotted with elephants, wildebeest, hippos and zebras. With life in London far behind, my first view of North Luangwa National Park (NLNP) blows me away.
Up next to the pilot is Paul Bamford, who like me is an Education Officer at ZSL London Zoo. For two weeks we’ve left the zoo classrooms behind in favour of Northern Zambia, to work with NLNP on developing their education programme.
Children in 22 schools around the National Park have special conservation lessons every week as part of this programme, learning how to help their local environment and the animals around them. Black rhino were poached to extinction in North Luangwa in the 1980s but have recently been reintroduced to the area, so teaching the local communities about these animals is an important part of their protection.
Last year, Save the Rhino asked ZSL to help with the education programme (known as “Lolesha Luangwa” – “Look At Luangwa” in the local Bemba language), and Paul Bamford had already been to Zambia months before, to visit schools and develop their lessons into a new conservation curriculum. For me though, this was my first field project, and I couldn’t wait to get started!
Claire and Ed are the Technical Advisors for the National Park and live right in the middle with their three small children. They are English so our bags were stuffed with Dairy Milk and Hobnobs to remind them of home. Living in the Park is quite an adventure, with elephants eating from the trees by your bedroom, hyena footprints in the kitchen in the morning, and crocodile eye-shines in the river at night – it couldn’t feel further away from East London!
Talking to Claire, it’s clear there’s lots of work to do while we’re here. In the next week 29 local Conservation Teachers will arrive for two two-day workshops with Paul and I to help them teach the new curriculum, there’s Lolesha Luangwa educators to train, evaluation plans to make… two weeks suddenly doesn’t seem like long enough!
On my first day I am excited to finally meet Sylvester and Michael, the Lolesha Luangwa educators who visit every school to deliver special lessons about black rhinos. The children love them and it’s not hard to see why – they’re infectiously enthusiastic about their work, and keen to ensure that the children genuinely feel positively about conservation, not just learn new information. We give them a crash course in teaching theory, learning styles and evaluation – a PGCE’s worth of information in a few hours - and prepare them for their parts in the upcoming workshop. In return they very patiently teach us some Bemba: mwabukashani (hello)!
The teachers are arriving tomorrow and my nerves have set in – what do they think of the new curriculum? Will our workshops be useful for them? Can anyone understand my terrible Bemba pronunciation? There’s only one way to find out…
Elephants at lunch
It’s the first day of our workshops with Conservation Teachers from schools around the National Park, and the first challenge of the day is just getting there! The workshop classroom is only 2km away but during wet season the road is turned into a muddy trench and Paul’s driving skills are seriously put to the test. We set up our classroom and prepare the rooms where the teachers will be sleeping – equipped with bunk beds, mosquito nets and a kitchen, next year these rooms will hold groups of schoolchildren on their first visits to the Park.
The 16 Conservation Teachers arrive at last in a big truck from their local villages. They’ve been driving for hours but are still smiling and excited – the Park really is an amazing place to see!
Our workshops cover the learning theory and teaching skills that are used in the new conservation curriculum, and it is quickly very clear that the Zambian teachers are well trained and enthusiastic at their work. Most of them have enjoyed teaching a few lessons of the new curriculum already so we do roleplays, discussions and practical work to enhance their teaching and help make their lessons more effective.
After a few hours inside a hot humid classroom, we move the activities outside under the shade of a marula tree – much better!
During lunch an elephant wanders over to watch us eat our nshima (a kind of thick corn porridge). Most of the Conservation Teachers have never been inside the Park before, and are very excited to see wild animals so close by – this really is bringing their conservation curriculum to life.
Ed, who helps to manage the park rangers, comes and shows us a real poacher’s gun, and tells stories about stolen rhino horns and how the Park is kept secure. The teachers are fascinated and discuss how to tell their students about what they’ve seen.
We end the day with a football match – our teachers against the Park’s tough rangers and repair men. Paul & I wisely stick to the sidelines to avoid embarrassment on the field – we are not natural athletes. A few other teachers join our cheerleading squad and teach us the Zambian football song “Ba Zambia, nalelo bawina chipolopolo” (“Zambians run as fast as bullets!”) Despite losing on the pitch, we sing this song all the way back to base, changing it to “Ba Teacher…”
The last morning finishes with the presentation of certificates and gifts to the schools (a new dictionary each), before it’s time for the long trip home.
Another 13 teachers will arrive on Monday for our second workshop, but for now we have a rare free day, and that can only mean one thing – try to find some rhinos…
Though I usually love a weekend lie-in at home, here in Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park I’m up at dawn for the most exciting reason – today I hope to track and find my very first wild rhino.
The National Park staff are kind enough to let us tag along with two of their park rangers, Moses and Zulu, on a day’s work out in the Park. It can be dangerous to walk in the Park with unpredictable lions, hyenas and wild dogs around (as well as huge rhinos), but it’s clear that with these two and their years of experience we’ll be safe.
It’s been a long day for Paul…
Each rhino reintroduced into the Park is checked on by the rangers every few days. Poachers are a constant threat, wanting to take rhino horns to sell as traditional medicine in Asia, so the rangers’ job monitoring the area is vitally important. Rhino horn is made out of keratin, exactly the same as your hair and fingernails, which makes this trade even more infuriating – you could make medicine out of my clipped fingernails without killing a rhino!
After a couple of hours of driving into the Park we leave the vehicle behind and head into the bush. I’m a keen hiker and walker at home in Britain, but this is totally different – each step we’re pushing thick layers of branches and leaves aside, and melting in the blazing heat. Even at a decent pace it’s tough going – in two hours we’ve only travelled a few kilometres. I’m amazed that Moses and Zulu keep this up every day.
We slow down and creep as quietly as we can through the bushes, trying not to make any noise with our feet. The rangers say that one of the young male rhinos is close by – we can’t see him but with a rhino’s fantastic hearing I’m sure he knows exactly where we are.
Can you spot the rhino here?
Moses freezes and points into the leaves – 30m away there’s a shape in the bushes. Could it be a rhino? The shape shifts and it’s clear he’s there, looking right at us, horn and ears just discernible through the leaves. Moses says our names in turn while pointing at nearby trees, “Kate, that’s your tree, Paul, Zulu…” – these are the trees we are to run and climb if the rhino charges towards us – mine suddenly looks impossibly high! After a few minutes of absolute stillness we begin to move closer… a twig snaps underfoot and, with a start, the rhino runs – luckily in the opposite direction. It amazes me how fast and agile these huge, heavy-looking creatures are. Moses and Zulu make notes about the rhino’s condition, his horns, his ears, his movement – apparently he looks in good health, so we’re happy. Another rhino they monitor has recently been seen with her newborn calf – a hugely important event for this small but growing population.
Moses and the rhino’s huge footprints
We return to base more inspired than ever by these beautiful creatures and the importance of teaching local communities to protect them.
The second workshop with local Conservation Teachers, this time from the Mpika district, goes as well as the first, and before we know it it’s time to fly back to Britain. Some last training sessions with Sylvester and Michael, who’ll deliver a third workshop after we’ve gone, last plans with Claire about the next steps for the education programme, hugs for everyone and it’s time to get back on our tiny plane.
Conservation Teachers from Mpika discuss the new curriculum
Since our trip to North Luangwa the education programme has continued to grow and improve, and we see letters every week from schools enjoying and learning from the programme. Next year I hope to go back to see the schools hold their annual Conservation Celebration Day, telling their families and community about what they’ve learned. With the people living around the National Park helping to protect it, hopefully the black rhinos and other animals will have a bright future – I can’t wait to see it!
Goodbye North Luangwa!