Rising from the Ashes: Zambia
Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Spring 2013
s our tiny spotter plane passed over the flat grasslands of Zambia’s Liuwa Plain National Park, eight round-eared faces with wet twitching noses peered up at us from the edge of a flower-ringed pool.
The landscape below was bright green and interspersed with many such shallow ponds, most of which played host to thousands of birds. As our aircraft approached the field, maribu storks, vultures, cranes and terns took flight while hundreds of wildebeest scattered from our shadow in panic, swerving and weaving away below us like a swarm of black ants.
Yet a pack of rare African wild dogs seemed unconcerned, as did the clan of hyena with whom they were resting.
“That’s fantastic!” shouted the park’s manager, Craig Reed, over the plane’s com-system.
“This is the first time we have spotted the dogs from the air since beginning surveys in 2003. Their presence here means that the ecology is recovering and that we as wildlife managers are doing our jobs.”
The Liuwa Plane National Park is part of the great Zambezi floodplain, a 7,500-square-mile (19,425 sq km) region of seasonally inundated grasslands and forests where the second largest wildebeest migration on earth occurs. Not only does it overflow with water, it should also overflow with wild animals, but due to decades of commercial poaching, much of that wildlife has been killed.
In 2003, though, things started to change for the better after a three-way partnership was forged between a private parks management service called The African Parks Network (APN), Zambia’s wildlife authorities (ZAWA) and the local royal establishment.
Now that the poaching has stopped, tourists are once again visiting the region, the local economy is improving and animal populations are well on their way to recovery.
I peered out through the windows of the plane and saw that all around, from horizon to horizon, were vast herds of zebra, clusters of antelope and enough wildebeest to make a pride of lions go crazy.
I’d come to Liuwa, an almost unknown African safari destination, not just for its pure, soundless beauty – it is a place that clearly demonstrates that wild ecosystems can bounce back from the very edge of oblivion.
Queen of the Jungle
Later that same day, I was taken into the park on the back of a motorbike by expert ranger Roger Monde, armed with a gun – in case we ran into poachers.
“I hope you have strong thighs,” he told me in a deep baritone voice, “You are going to need them.”
Before I even had time to think, off we went across the open plain at a speed wholly inappropriate for the terrain on which we were traveling. Termite mounds sent us airborne, sandy patches brought us to our knees, startled wildebeest ran at us like soccer hooligans and on more than one occasion I completely lost my composure and screamed at Mr. Monde to slow down.
We trotted through the wilderness like a rocket ship, dust in our wake and flocks of frightened wading birds at our bow. Sadly the wild dogs had departed by the time we reached the waterhole, maybe because they had heard me screaming, but more likely because they had been displaced by two romantically inclined lions who were romping around in the flowers like teenage lovers.
“Meet Lady Liuwa,” Roger announced as we drew up alongside the amorous couple. “It is nice to see that she is working as hard as the rest of us here at Liuwa to reestablish wildlife populations.”
I watched nervously from the podium seat of Roger’s rickety bike, feeling like a voyeur as the lions got down and dirty mere inches away from us.
For eight years, Lady Liuwa was the last lion in the park. All the others had been shot by poachers, but just last year, the authorities brought in two new males for her to play with.
Since APN and the under-funded ZAWA joined forces, not only have resident wildlife populations increased by an average of 10% annually, other locally extinct species such as buffalo and eland (a giant form of antelope) have been shipped in from outside.
“Within a few more years we expect that the Liuwa Plain will be as it once was, before the Angolan war brought weapons to this region.”
The weapons are now mostly gone, handed in during an amnesty set up by APN or else confiscated by government authorities.
“Until next time then Lady Liuwa,” Roger called out cheerily towards the copulating cats, and once again we were off across the flat empty spaces, under a somber sky full of thunderclouds and cranes.
Every year for around six months, 80 percent of the Liuwa Plain National Park becomes an enormous lake. The same happens in the surrounding inhabited areas too, and as such the local human population has become somewhat amphibious in nature.
“When the flood comes, as every year it does,” Roger told me, “we, the Lozi people, follow our king away from the floodplain and up onto the rises. There, we catch fish and play cards.”
When the floods retreat, the tribe moves back onto the plain with their cattle, where they start to harvest the thousands of fish-filled ponds left behind by the receding waters.
We parked for a while next to one of these beautiful circular pools and watched as a group of lithe-bodied men, dressed in nothing but underpants, chucked spears into the shallows. They wallowed, stomped and splashed around like children, doing their best to scare fish into the margins where they could be easily speared.
It was an interesting cultural experience, but I couldn’t help wondering what these people were doing hunting in a national park? Surely that was illegal.
“There are more than 20,000 people living in and around Liuwa,” Roger told me when I asked him about it. “It is our home and we belong here. In fact, we were placed here by our king more than 200 years ago to protect his wildlife from outsiders.”
The King is still revered by the Lozi tribe, and his royal parliament of ten area chiefs hold power and sway amongst the various populations spread out across the plain.
Roger said as we left the park, “It is our duty and as such we are official custodians of Liuwa Plain National Park.”
The following day I returned to Liuwa, this time with local students from nearby communities, many of whom had never visited the park. Some had never even seen wildlife before, others had never seen a car, but all of them knew that the park belonged to them.
A royal chief, grey-haired and sage looking, had come along to guide them. As we traversed the plains, he regaled the children with stories of history and nature.
We made a stop in front of a beautiful pond in the middle of the plains. “After a successful hunting trip, the King of all the Lozi people rested for a time in this very spot because this is a place where the fishing is good.”
The old man walked to the edge of the pool, sending a large flock of terns skyward. Zebra and wildebeest loitered nearby, unconcerned by our presence while a team of long-legged storks waded through the shallows.
“This is our great king’s sacred pool. And these,” he said to the children, pointing to the animals all around us, “are our king’s wildebeest. And that makes them our wildebeest too.”
We traveled for a while longer, passing groves of mopani woodlands before returning to the yellow-fringed margins of Lady Liuwa’s pool.
“And these lions here are also our lions and we must protect them from harm.”
Finally we moved on to another pretty little water hole where we were greeted by eight round-eared faces with very familiar twitching noses.
“Ahhh, and these,” said the chief with a glint in his eye. “I have not seen them here for a loooong long time. They are very special animals indeed. These, my children, these are our African wild dogs. And it is very, very nice to finally see them back.”
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Spring 2013.