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.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Wild Chobe River of Botswana

A Malachite Kingfisher rests and looks for little fish on the bank of the Chobe River in Botswana.

We drove north out of the isolated farmlands of Pandamatenga in northern Botswana and came through a wide open grassland where groups of elephants were crossing this lonely road in a northeast direction towards Zimbabwe. Like ships on the ocean, the grand beasts floated over the grasses, their long legs lost in a sea of green. A small family herd at first headed towards us then veered off and loitered about two hundred meters away, waiting for us to clear out before crossing the road.

This stretch of highway links the populated south with the more empty north, and during the height of Zimbabwe’s political crisis in 2008 it became the main thoroughfare for traffic into Zambia, Malawi and Congo. The road surface was never meant to carry hundreds of thousands of huge trucks, and is now a potholed mess. The government of Botswana is building a new road next to the old one, which further slows our progress from a gallop to a trot that is much more fitting to the scenery and the animals.

A large, slightly annoyed hippo on the banks of the Chobe River, painted up to look like a skunk.

Stopping often to see Lappetfaced Vultures, elephants, and the occasional giraffe, we stopped short of town and drove into a small forest reserve. There in the dying light of day, the sun had set and the night was looming on the eastern horizon. A big black beast broke cover, his white mask and huge scimitar horns unmistakable. It was a Sable antelope, one of the largest ones I have ever seen, and one of the rarest kinds in Africa. I had only seen one once before, on this same road, in 1997. The idea that this magnificent animal might be the same one or a distant relative, and had remained safe here with little official protection comforted me as we pushed deep into the bush under a large tree and made our camp.

The next morning we made our way to the riverside town of Kasane, at the heart of the planned Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, or KAZA (read more about this trip and project here) in the Hog, my Toyota Landcruiser.

In Kasane we made contact with a local tour company I have used before and hired a small flat-bottomed riverboat for our small team. At three in the afternoon we boarded the boat and cruised up the Chobe River, into Chobe National Park. This is an amazing experience for anyone with a love for nature. Our little boat was small enough to pull right up onto the bank and we came face to face with many animals that are usually seen only at a great distance. A huge male hippo dressed up in wet mud down his back like a skunk was grazing on the land, and although he threatened us a little, he seemed remarkably relaxed with us only a few meters away, standing in the boat taking photos of him.

We sidled ever-so-slowly up to a tiny little Malachite Kingfisher, one of the most beautiful and shy birds in Africa. With my 400mm lens on my still camera I managed to get an almost perfect portrait of him, only two arm lengths away. He was still resting there as we motored away, further up river.

Sunset on the Chobe River

Giraffe’s bent to drink silhouetted by the setting sun while a fish eagle bided his time on a broken old tree, waiting for fish to rise so he could enjoy his evening meal. Elephants were everywhere, some of the 140,000 of them that call this area home. The sun set through an old tree by river bank while i clicked away, enjoying every moment of this incredible evening.

We forged further into the park, way past the time when we could still see through the fading light of the equatorial day. Our guide stopped us, engine off, next a group of male elephants grazing in the tall grass right next to us. We could feel their exhalations, smell their big muddy bodies, and hear their breathing and quiet munchings right over us. It was a profound moment, the light of day a distant band in the west, the stars shining down, and the intimate sounds of the grandest beasts to walk the earth all around us.

There are an estimated 140,000 elephants in the Chobe River complex, these ones are drinking by the Chobe River at dusk.

The Chobe National Park is the benchmark for much of the planned KAZA park, and after a few days of exploring the town of Kasane and the countryside, we headed off over the Kazangula Ferry and into Zambia, where the lessons of Botswana are being implemented, and the grandest part of the KAZA is starting to take shape in fits and starts.

Sunset over the Namibian side of the Chobe River, near Kasane, Botswana.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Human-Animal Conflict?

A small fresh-water pan near Pandamatenga, Botswana where elephants often come to drink.

We crossed the cattle fence five kilometers north of Ben’s Elephant Sands, on our way up to Pandamatenga. This isolated farming area is completely surrounded by game areas and wildlife. It is the largest contiguous crop growing area in Botswana and produces much of the produce and grains that the country consumes. The farmlands are protected from elephants by a huge electrical fence, paid for by the farmers and government. Local subsistence farmers are also given lands to plant within this little island of agricultural productivity.

Its odd to be in an area that is the opposite of the rest of the world. In virtually every country place Earth the land is for the people and little isolated protected areas are fenced off for nature. Pandematenga is a little island of humanity isolated in a sea of wilderness.

We have come here to interview Andrea Bolla. She is a geographical scientist from Canada who is researching a PHD on human-animal conflict issues. This petit lady from Vancouver has some pretty big ideas about wildlife and people.

In the agricultural history of the human race, we have, arguably, been in “conflict” with the natural world we rely on. This conflict takes many different guises. Termites eat the fence posts that are built to stop larger game from eating our produce. Before the electrical fence was put in here, elephants or a large herd of buffalo could ruin thousands of acres of productive fields.

But without conflict we would also not enjoy the presence of wilderness on our planet and the very diversity that sustains us. Andrea argues that conflict needs to be studied to find out what constitutes unacceptable loses, and what measures are needed to mitigate those losses.

First, she suggests, lets define conflict. In every farmer’s field all over the world there are losses. These losses are caused by disease, blight, birds, lack of regular moisture, animals, a vast variety of things. Most farmers can handle a small amount of loss, maybe even up to 20%. In Pandamatenga, when the fence was built, ungulates like antelopes and others like warthogs were trapped within this barrier. Big animals like elephants, buffaloes, hyenas and lions were pushed out and kept out for the most part. Without the predators the antelopes increased and often eat the farmers crops. many farmers enjoy the wild animals and have chosen to farm here because of the romance associated with them. These antelope and warthogs and birds and other critters eat their crops, and some feel that this is an acceptable loss for living among them. Other farmers disagree, and call for a major reduction in the numbers of wild animals within the fences in order to boost production. So there is a balance of a sort that is constantly being discussed and maintained. Sometimes there is culling, sometimes there is not.

Andrea asks: “Is this balancing act actually conflict or a man-made semblance of the natural order of things?” She is using this closed system to study the relationships between man and nature, hoping to find guidance or at least some truisms that can be extrapolated from it. I ask her if what she discovers can be applied elsewhere, but she demurs. “Every system, every interaction between man and nature needs to be discussed on its own merits, and although some broad lessons can be learned and applied, we should not assume that what works for one place will work for another”.

She has a very valid point. The farmers in Pandamatenga are an anomaly in the region. Protected by a fence and the wealth to pay for it, they are commercial farmers for the most part, making a profit from their work. But most people in the region are subsistence farmers, operating without resources of any kind, living hand-to-mouth.

In Botswana, where many people make a livelihood from wildlife and nature, the benefits of living and farming among wild beasts are usually better understood than in most areas of Africa, where wild beasts are looked upon with an almost mythical fear we would usually reserve for minotaurs and dragons. The very idea of living with them in peace and harmony is an anathema. Often for good reason. Lions may eat children on their way to school, elephants can trample a family’s only food garden and predators can decimate livestock, leaving a farmer penniless.

This issue is shaping up to be the real challenge of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. The KAZA, once established, will be home to almost a million people within it’s borders. In the Okavango, where wild beasts and people co-exist and mutually benefit from each other, our team has learned what it takes to do that. Read about the Jakotsha Trust from an earlier trip here. These are hard won lessons, and we are on our way to rural Zambia, where farmers and villagers will have to be included from the very beginning in any animal reintroduction that occurs in their area.

It’s clear from our time in Pandamatenga that people and animals can coexist by determining what are the issues and needs of both groups, whether there is indeed a conflict, and what can be done to mitigate that. Whether these issues will relate to the local subsistence farmers is something we are only starting to explore.

Megan Izen, left, from The City University Of New York (CUNY) doing video work while scientist Andrea Bolla looks out over a small fresh water pan near Pandamatenga.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Lions and Elephants: Thrills and Chills

Nestled among the Aloes: our first camp near Baltimore, South Africa.

This blog has been poorly serviced because I have been on the road. On July 14th we headed into the wilds of Southern Africa to continue my work on a documentary for LinkTV about the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Called the KAZA for short, this massive project is working to create the biggest protected area in the world. Larger than Italy and spanning the borders of Angola, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, it is the most ambitious project of it's kind ever attempted. I have been working on a long-term story about the project and some entries from past trips are found here and here.

Johannesburg's dry wintery cold had lifted a bit by midday. Four of us, including Carl the trainee cameraman and Megan Izen, an intern from the the City University of New York left the city late. We headed due north, up towards the border where Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana come together. It's not safe to drive at night in Africa so we found a little spot in a communal area near a town called Baltimore. This little village of concrete houses was about as different as it is far away from US city of the same name.

The Hog, our Toyota Landcruiser, had a small hiccup and decided our fate for us. By the time I had reconnected the little wire that keeps the diesel switch open the sun had set and we felt the chilly African night start to settle in the little valley. Some boys on a donkey cart came, axel-squeaking, toward us from a small woodland and we asked if we could camp there for the night. They smiled largely and said no problem, so we forded the small stream and found a little clearing nestled into the trees and big aloe plants. Wild camping in Africa is usually no problem, but it is important to ask the local people not only for their permission, but for any helpful advice and even their protection. In a small rural community a truckload of people with cameras will be seen and talked about for kilometers around and we are in essence their guests, so it's best act as such.

We were heading for the ancient kingdom of Mapungubwe. By the 10th century, Mapungubwe had become the center of power in Southern Africa. Connected by trade all the way to the coast of Tanzania, the kingdom reigned supreme until the arrival of slavers. It is now the site of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area that spans the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. We came to get a sense of what a working TFCA looks like. Lodges and guest houses as well as community camps dot the area, which is also known as the Tuli Block, a place notorious for smugglers, elephants, buffalo and of course, lions.

That night, after crossing over to the Botswana side, lions circled our little bush camp. We lay in our tents, hearts beating as first one then two lions started booming their WUh HU hu hu hu sound on either side of our flimsy shelters. My heart was so loud I was sure the lions could hear thumping against the earth. During dinner our small party had relocated to the roof of the truck when a lion boomed the first time. Plates and all, most of us finished our tasty curry perched on the top of the canopy of the Hog.

I was not too worried on account of that old truism: you don't have to run faster than the lion, you just have to run faster than your slowest friend. I have always been a good runner. Nevertheless, lions very rarely tear into a tent, and many a night I have heard them, breathing, pacing and circling the camp. They are more curious than anything else, I am sure, but regardless I usually wait until first light to make a trip to the latrine.

Our Camp on the second night of the trip in the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area that was surrounded by lions.

The next day, bright eyed and less bushy tailed we headed up to the very edge of the KAZA park itself to visit some farmers and lodge owners who are interested in integrating their lands into the conservation area.

Botswana is big, and despite an early departure we only arrived at my friend Ben Mueller's Elephant Sands camp a few hours after dark. Ben is a large personality of a man, and he loves elephants. Some jokingly refer to him as the elephant whisperer. Ben has turned his three farms into a conservation area all his own. He is happy to share it though and has already been approached by the KAZA park officials and local chiefs to see if he is interested in being included in the park. He wholeheartedly agrees. like most people in Botswana, he has seen the benefits of tourism firsthand, and already runs a successful lodge and bush camp.

His farms are designated cattle country, but tell that to the thousands of elephants that pass by his waterhole every year on their annual migration from Botswana's Kalahari desert and into Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.

Cattle do not thrive here. They fall prey to lions and some of Africa's only free ranging wild dogs, but it's the tsetse flies other insects that prey on them that really make it difficult for cattle ranchers. This trouble is also a boon, and Ben wants to join in the KAZA park plan to offer these rare animals official protection. "We want any future fence around the KAZA to encircle us too," he explains, sitting on his sunny front porch next to a swimming pool that serves elephants as much as it does the guests to his lodge.

"The chiefs are behind the plan, and the local people have already contacted us. If possible, some other farmers in the area are also keen to have their farms included. Of course not everyone feels this way, but we can be part of this if the park planners are interested, its been a dream of mine for some time." This forward thinking man's love for elephants and nature is legend.

The notorious "elephant pool" at Elephant Sands in Botswana.

A small injury from an angry and confused female elephant has done nothing to deter him. Earlier this year a baby elephant fell into his swimming pool. The mother jumped in after it, but the pool was too small for her to turn around. In the resulting chaos, Ben jumped into the pool and helped the baby elephant to safety at considerable risk to his own life. The mother made it out but not before damaging the pool and getting very worked up. Later in the evening she came to the bar, cornered Ben, and charged him -lifting him up off the ground with the force of her impact and sending him flying across the bar floor. Only the solid roof of the structure prevented her from trampling him. In response, Ben widened the pool and made big elephant-sized steps for the beasts to safely get out. He also grudgingly made a small fence around the bar area to protect clients from what he calls "the possibility of future confusion". He does not regret the attack, and feels that people and elephants can get along with mutual respect and understanding. He blames himself for not making sure his trunked guests were as catered for as him two legged ones.

From my journal:

Today is a rest day here at Elephant Sands. Last night over dinner a lone bull elephant came down to the waterhole next to our table and slaked his thirst noisily as we enjoyed the cook's best fare. The cook, named Lazarus, came to check on us and made sure we had everything we need. Thirty years ago there were few elephants here, he told us, but now there are more elephants than ever. The Botswana government's official protection has been a shining example for conservation throughout the continent, and shows that like Lazarus' namesake, ecosystems like this one can be brought back from the dead.

Megan Izen, working with the project as an intern from the City University of New York (CUNY) on her first African assignment. The top of the truck is a safe place for star gazing and escaping from predators.