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SOS Rhino : In the News : Wanted in Kafue: tourists, not poachers

Wanted in Kafue: tourists, not poachers

The rains had just broken over the Zambian capital, Lusaka. Lightning was tearing open the skies. And we were sitting on a tiled veranda listening to the bedlam of water crashing off the tin roof, the thudding percussion of thunder and the thrilled shouts of children in the street beyond the hibiscus hedge.

It is moments like this that make you fall in love with Africa: the drama, the excitement.

Minutes earlier, darkness had fallen in the sudden way it does here, as if God has just hit the light switch. There were hordes of frogs hopping around our wicker chairs, and our hosts had placed storm lanterns (a power-cut was expected any minute), bowls of nuts and biltong jerky on the table. Another round of gin-and-tonics, and then the (shouted) conversation shifted away from the topic of ex-President Frederick Chiluba's expected indictment on corruption charges.

It turned to the case of Kafue. Or, more accurately, the conundrum of Kafue.

Zambia's Kafue National Park is the second-largest in Africa. It covers an area of 22,480 sq. km. -- making it roughly the size of Israel. Thanks to its geographical location, it is where the flora and fauna of East, Central and Southern Africa all meet and mingle.

As a result it is populated by the greatest diversity of mammal species on the entire continent.

Elephant, lion, cheetah, gravely endangered African wild dog, large herds of antelope, hippo, you name it and Kafue probably has it -- with the exception of rhino. The last spoor was recorded in 1994 and scientists have concluded that they've all been poached. Also, peculiarly, there are no giraffe and never have been. But if you want to see leopard, Kafue is rated as one of the best places in Africa.

There are 482 bird species, teak forests, miombo forests, rivers, savanna, papyrus swamps . . .

And yet virtually no one goes there. It's all but fallen off the map.

True, for many years Kafue was synonymous with Africa's destructive twin plagues of poaching and mind-boggling postcolonial mismanagement. In the 1980s, before the international trade in ivory was outlawed, there was a grotesque spasm of elephant poaching. Kafue had at least 30,000 elephants. Now, it has 4,000. More or less.

But other national parks that were similarly affected have shrugged off their equally ghastly reputations. In the case of Kafue, strangely, the mud has stuck. Its past still haunts it.

Even seasoned safari-goers shun the place. Philip Briggs, writing in the excellent Africa Geographic magazine, sums it up neatly. He says that the Kafue assertions most frequently made prior to his visit were, "Kafue? Haven't been there in years, but they say that the poachers have taken it over." "I hear there's bugger all wildlife left!"

Virtually word for word, we had heard the same, even from adventurous Zambians.

"Go there," our Lusaka hosts said, contradicting all other advice. "See the place. So many safari tourists miss seeing Zambia. And even more miss seeing Kafue. It's a tragedy." Or words to that effect. The gin and the cacophony of the storm combined to make a totally coherent interview difficult.

"Don't go now, though. Not in the Wet. You won't make it."

We didn't go. Not then.

Lonely Planet's guide "Watching Wildlife, Southern Africa" observes that "possibly the biggest hurdle to tourism is Zambia's poor roads. . . . Many lesser-known parks are difficult to visit, while most parks are inaccessible in the wet season." They've got that right. Trust us! Only someone with a Hovercraft or a Humvee would get through to Kafue after heavy rains. Indeed, for six months of the year, Kafue is all but off-limits to any visitors other than poachers. It is Kafue's burden.

This may soon change, however -- and if all goes according to plan, Kafue's glory days may return.

Currently the desperately poor Kaonde and Nakoya tribes live on the periphery of the park. Dubbed by some anthropologists as "Fourth World people," fully one-third of these marginalized folk subsist on hunting/poaching in Kafue. Subsistence hunting has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. In recent years, though, commercial poaching has arrived. Wheeler-dealers in Lusaka arm the Kaonde and Nakoya and send them into Kafue to shoot everything they see for subsequent sale in the capital's thriving bushmeat trade.

The killing is currently at an unsustainable level.

Virtually none of the meager revenue generated by Kafue safari tourism finds its way into local pockets because it is currently all but impossible to reach the villages. Or the villagers' pockets. Safari lodges and concessions face appalling logistics and frequently have to close.

Elsewhere in Africa, such as Kenya's Masai Mara, conservationists bemoan the ecological impact of tourists. Too many tourists! They're loving the place to death! Not here. Kafue needs more tourists. Lots more tourists.

To this end there are plans afoot to begin the construction of 1,220 km of roads through and, more importantly, around the park. The all-weather ring road would enable safari outfits to gain access to Kafue 365 days a year as well as open up the villages to ecotourism initiatives such as guiding, crafts manufacture and accommodation.

Furthermore, the presence of safari lodges significantly deters poaching. Illegal activity drops away to zero in places where there are regular game drives and river-boat trips.

The road-building plan is a bold one with enormous implications. Ecologically speaking, Kafue is currently bloodied -- but unbowed. But if things continue as they are now, the area could conceivably be wrecked and Zambia could lose an invaluable asset.

Although on paper it would appear that there is an abundance of accommodation in Kafue, most safari outfits have closed down or function erratically. Two lodges, however, are stable and well-established. These are the Lufapa and Lunga river lodges. They operate excellent drive, walk and boat safaris and can organize transport to and from Lusaka. Check out

Zambia's South Luangwa National Park, an excellent national park, is accessible year-round. If you are in Zambia don't miss this one. Luangwa was poached to hell but has bounced back. Kafue can, too. So remember, tourists, Kafue needs you!

The Japan Times: Aug. 22, 2003
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