Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A System That Supports Wildlife and People

We entered Zambia over the Zambezi and Chobe river confluence at the Kazangula Ferry. On the other side about ten kilometers towards the Zambian town of Livingingston we pulled off to enjoy the hospitality of some small subsistence farmers who formed a women's group.

They invited us to stay down on their land near the Zambezi floodplain just past the little winter food gardens where they grow basic necessities. We set up camp and asked to meet with the women's group in the morning to discuss the plans for the KAZA Trans-frontier Conversation Area (TFCA), which we are making a documentary about.

The Kazuungula ferry crosses the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi River. Four of the five countries that make up the KAZA meet here.

On the map that we got from the Director's office of the TFCA project it shows that this area is part of a local conservation project that will possibly be included in the greater KAZA plan. We wanted to sit down and talk about the future park but it was late in the day. As the word went out from the local village to bring the women's group members together in the morning we turned in early. Laying in my tent I was struck by how little night sounds there were, no birds, no animals, pretty much nothing. It is clear that a river crossing and the presence of hundreds of villagers was a somewhat effective barrier for the many African animals that roam wild just a few short miles away.

The next morning dawned clear, with plenty of birds, only they were the more common ones like the persistent 3am rooster and his many rivals vying for hen interest by being earliest and loudest.

We were met by the women's group in the closest little village. They had laid out grass mats and they welcomed us with a song and a prayer, which is fitting since both might be needed if this ambitious park plan is to succeed. We laid out our huge map on the mats and explained to the group the plan for the KAZA and the possible inclusion of their area into it. We were interested to get a real opinion from local farmers about what their feelings were. Unlike in Botswana, the people here had no exposure to tourism and had very little contact with wild animals.

The ladies of a rural women's group in Zambia are excited that the KAZA Park may give them jobs but also worried about food and personal security.

The women's group was led by a man. This might sound absurd yet in this part of Africa women have very little say in the politics within local power structures. So a man had been appointed to speak on their behalf, and while he sat in a chair, the ladies all sat on the mats in front of him in what seemed a decidedly subservient way.

As we explained the project, and the possibilities, many of the women got excited and we filmed them while they each had their say. Overwhelmingly everyone was afraid of wild animals, particularly lions and elephants. The first because they might eat their children while they walked to school, the second because they would destroy their vital food gardens. What became apparent however was that the leader, who was the chief's brother, was telling the ladies to say that they did not want this park project at all, but some ladies would not listen to him.

The ladies of the women's group in rural Zambia welcome the team with a song.

They all explained that they had never heard of the KAZA project, but some of the women got very excited, one exclaiming loudly in excellent English: "I want to be a guide!", many of the women agreed, saying they needed new jobs and opportunities before they were silenced by the leader, who started looking more and more upset.

It was a real moment of clarity for me and the team. Here was the real bare-bones challenge of the park: try to be many things to many people. Here also was the human-animal conflict issue writ small: How will the KAZA provide protection to the small gardens that almost one million rural farmers till to provide basic food for their families?

The meeting wound down, and the end result seemed to be that the women of the village would support the KAZA if they could get jobs and training and have their gardens and children protected. By contrast, in Botswana we found many rural communities and farmers very excited about being included in the park and very knowledgeable about it. Just over the river there was a high level of understanding of how it could help them, and an eagerness to get involved.

Here in Zambia, with a poorer population that have little education, promises of development and inclusion will have to be accompanied by real action and more information if the plan is to succeed. It was very interesting to see first-hand the real fear these people have for wild animals, when only ten miles away thousands of people around Kasane live among wild animals every day without many major incidents.

This fear developed over time as the animals in this area were wiped out during the 1970s and 80s. Park planners and the local government will have to redevelop the community's knowledge of how to deal with potentially dangerous animals so that the fear of reintroduced animals does not lead to further killing.

Victoria Falls spans more than a mile across.

Our team enjoyed a singing send-off as we got on our way to Victoria Falls. As this park plan develops, we will hopefully have a chance to revisit this group of women and get a greater understanding of how the TFCA is meeting these very real challenges.

The falls are one of the natural wonders of the world.

We stopped on the side of the furiously flowing Zambezi River just above Victoria Falls. At the horizon the flow of the river dropped off into the Batoka Gorge for a mile, raising a massive plume of cloud that resembles smoke. As we got closer, the roar filled our ears, showering us in the little rain forest so that I had to put the rain cover on the video camera. We stood there awed by one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. This will be the centerpiece of this grand conservation area and the main point of access. This is the end of the road for this trip into the KAZA and there no place in Africa more fitting to a start or a finish than Victoria Falls.

On the way home we made camp next to a secret waterhole in the Kalahari where elephants washed and drank noisily next to our camp while the Milky Way shined above us.

Thirty miles away the dim lights of a road camp lit the horizon under the stars next to our secret elephant watering hole.

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