My visit this past April to Kafue National Park, the largest park in Zambia and the second largest park in all of Africa, was wonderful and alarming at the same time. I was very much looking forward to this visit because Zambian wildlife is one of my favorite features of your beautiful country. When I was Deputy Chief of Mission at our Embassy in Zimbabwe more than 10 years ago, it was the unique wildlife and ecosystem that sparked my family’s dream to return to southern Africa. But my trip to Kafue National Park, while pleasing to me as a nature-lover, was a wake-up call to the tragedy of wildlife poaching in Zambia. And it will take all of us working together to put an end to this devastating scourge.
Alarming Poaching Crisis
I had primed myself to view some of Zambia’s majestic elephants while I was at Kafue National Park but was disappointed not to see a single one. Later, in talking to Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) officials, to wildlife protection NGOs, and to community members in Kafue, I learned that the Kafue National Park and Game Management Area elephant population is estimated to have been cut almost in half over the past five years due to poaching. It is no secret that the poaching crisis has affected all of southern Africa and that poachers operate within Zambia’s borders. Informal surveys estimate there are no more than 2,000 elephants left within the park boundaries. The criminals who kill this most regal of Zambia’s creatures, taking only its tusks, should be sought out and prosecuted to the fullest extent of Zambia’s law. Zambia’s elephants, rhinos, and other treasured wildlife are for all Zambians to enjoy and appreciate. More, elephants and other wildlife can be a centerpiece of a thriving and profitable tourism industry, employing tens of thousands of Zambians, but only if that wildlife is well-protected.
Even as we drove along the Lusaka-Kaoma road, which lies inside the boundaries of the park, I couldn’t help but think of how Kafue National Park’s wildlife is at risk. Cars, buses, and trucks were speeding along the road. Later, when I talked to community members, I learned that it is not uncommon for leopards and other prized animals to be hit and killed by this speeding traffic.
Encroachment is also a major problem. At one point, ZAWA officials showed us settlements and farmland encroaching on the park boundaries and pointed to the deforestation this encroachment results in, reducing the habitat for the wildlife.
How can we reconcile the needs of human progress and development with the need to protect Zambia’s wilderness and keep its animals alive? The answer lies in tourism that creates jobs and revenue for the communities living near Zambia’s national parks and game management areas. This is also the answer to reducing poaching. These communities must see the wildlife for the precious and renewable resource it is.
An important part of my visit to Kafue National Park was meeting with ZAWA officials and seeing first-hand the challenges they face. Charged with managing a huge area, often with very few resources and limited manpower, these officers work long days in the bush, living under difficult conditions, yet remain highly committed. I congratulate ZAWA and its officers for their commitment and dedication to protecting Zambia’s wildlife under such harsh circumstances and in the face of rising poaching pressures.
But ZAWA can’t do it alone; it needs support from all of us. There are many organizations working hard to support ZAWA in the Kafue area, such as Game Rangers International, and I applaud them and others who have risen to this challenge. Now let’s get other community members, NGOs, the Zambian government, the international community, and others working together to support ZAWA’s efforts to protect wildlife in Kafue National Park and throughout the country.
Communities Must Benefit from Protecting Wildlife
Part of the challenge for elephants and other wildlife in and around Kafue National Park is that the local community does not appear to benefit at present from the protection of wildlife or from the tourism in the park. I was dismayed at the condition of facilities in a Game Management Area community close to the main entrance gate of the park. Together with community leaders, I visited a primary school with two small buildings and only four teachers serving more than 400 children! There were not nearly enough desks and chairs for all of the students, and the buildings were in desperate need of repair. Community members said the only financial benefit they have seen from the park in recent years was support received from hunting license revenues coming from the Game Management Area, not from tourism generated within the park itself. Hunting can play a positive role in conservation but tourism, by promoting the preservation of Kafue’s wildlife, can and should play a much bigger role in improving the welfare of the communities near the Park.
Community members in and around national parks must play an active, positive role if wildlife is to be saved from extinction and form the basis for a tourism industry from which all Zambians will benefit. ZAWA, NGOs, the Zambian government, and international community must engage with local communities to determine how Zambia’s parks and tourism can benefit local communities so that they are part of the wildlife protection solution. Despite Victoria Falls and some of the largest and potentially best national parks in Africa, Zambia attracts only a few hundred thousand tourists a year. It has the potential to attract millions who would contribute to the Zambian economy and to the benefit of all Zambians but most especially to the local communities that are home to this precious natural heritage.
The Time is Now
I encourage the government to look for new ways to support the communities around its national parks, and I encourage all stakeholders to work together with the Zambian government and communities to support their efforts.
We have a chance to turn the tragic poaching crisis trend around and for Zambia to establish a framework under which both local communities and the entire economy will profit from Zambia’s wilderness treasures for generations to come. But the time to act is now. Once elephants are nearly extinct or gone from Zambia, it will be too late. We must all work together with ZAWA to combat this crisis.
Reliable poaching statistics need to be regularly available so that we can properly address the challenge, and so that people around the world can be educated about the regional poaching crisis. By raising awareness, we can encourage additional funding to ZAWA, wildlife protection NGOs, and others so that we have a fighting chance to stop these crimes from continuing. In closing, I continue to be fascinated by Zambia’s natural beauty. Though we saw no elephants, on one game drive in the park we did spot a leopard. It was the highlight of the trip. This is what tourists pay to see: animals in their natural habitats. To experience Africa’s nature is what motivates people to fly to Zambia from across the world. This is Zambia’s greatest natural resource, which – if protected – can help provide a bright economic future for all Zambians.