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Challenging Conservation Confrontations

Nsumbu National park is situated at the southern shore of Lake Tanganyika, the second largest freshwater body in the world. It is one of only two sanctuaries that actually extend into the lake, protecting the famous Tanganyika cichlids of which over 95 percent is endemic to the lake. Next to that, this national park in far northern Zambia actually has a vegetation type named after it: Itigi-Nsumbu thicket. This critically endangered vegetation type is disappearing rapidly and one could utter that the official name of this vegetation type should be changed to Nsumbu thicket as the thicket stands in Itigi (Tanzania) are all but gone.

False Acacia

Resting warthog

Historically, mega herbivores fulfilled their task as ecosystem engineers at grace and kept it in favourable conditions for other species to enjoy. Nowadays, in many places, the thicket is so dense that it is hard for anything larger than the illusive blue duiker to inhabit these thickets. Funnily, it is this same characteristic that made the Nsumbu thicket the last stronghold for elephants in this part of Africa. I have personally had the privilege to wander around in the dense thicket stands for a little over an hour but we could’ve crossed that patch in about 10 minutes if we weren’t walking around in circles. Even our GPS wasn’t always able to help us out because the dense canopy hindered any signal from actually reaching our device.

These are just two features that make up the unique mosaic that is known as Nsumbu National Park, however, I think these two attributes would already be more than enough reason to help protecting it. And yet, that proves to be the main struggle for Conservation Lake Tanganyika (CLT). I don’t think this would be anything new though, many conservation initiatives are struggling to fund their programs. I’m not stating that CLT’s cause is more important than any other conservation project around Africa; I’m merely trying to convince any reader that Nsumbu National Park is well worth it, and the time is right.

Elephant roadblock

When I found out that I got the opportunity to travel to Nsumbu National Park in late August 2014, I started gathering intelligence about the area, and what the main problems were. I soon realised that, next to a total lack of information, nothing much was being done to conserve Nsumbu. Except for CLT that is, as they are doing everything in their power to change this situation.  I have been working with Craig, the WPO’s and the scouts for almost three months now and it has been an incredible journey for me as a Dutch conservationist. These people are doing an incredible job in this very remote region and all that work has definitely paid off. Since CLT officially started in 2012, poaching incidents have dropped markedly and not a single elephant has been killed over the last 1.5 years.  One of the most difficult issues within Nsumbu NP has got nothing to do with terrestrial mammals though; illegal fishing in park waters is rapidly reducing the fish population in the park. Nsumbu NP extends for 1.6 kilometres into the lake and with that, it’s one of only two “lake reserves” on the entire Lake Tanganyika. People’s entire livelihoods around the lake depend on the fish that live in the lake and the population explosion in Zambia and other countries on Lake Tanganyika’s shores has put a lot of pressure on the fish. Less fish in the lake leads to rocketing fish prices in the village, making it ever more rewarding to try and sneak into park waters in the deep of night to catch some fish.

As one can see, animals in Nsumbu NP are being targeted from two different areas; the land and the water. And where CLT has had quite some success in declining the threat from land, the lake is a bit of a different story. When livelihood is directly at stake, what are we, as conservationists, going to do?

Afromontane forest

Muzinga falls

The idealist in me has always been convinced that for any conservation initiative to succeed the local communities have to be included in the projects and they should ultimately take ownership of those very conservation initiatives. Believe me, I’ve tried to find ways to involve the local communities, and I’ve been thinking about how the local people can get any benefit out of the park, but I’ve failed so far. Time is running out for Nsumbu and the reality is that right now it just comes down to first things first. When CLT succeeds in its efforts to efficiently secure the protection of the park (and they are rapidly getting there,) community involvement has to be high on the agenda. But until we get to that stage I personally don’t see any opportunities for community involvement. And whereas the idealist in me might not be too happy about that, the realist in me knows that there is only one way for Nsumbu NP, and that is forward. Together with the effort of the Zambian Wildlife Authorities, the Zambian Government, and ultimately the local communities, CLT can make that difference for Nsumbu NP. There are no easy solutions around here, and the road ahead is a very bumpy one, but I know CLT is in it for the long run and we can restore Nsumbu NP in the natural gem that it once was, we just need to be very persistent.

Puku


Caught on Camera

Craig mentioned that there was a possibility that Conservation Lake Tanganyika (CLT) would get some camera traps to capture some long lost large felines in Nsumbu National Park. I am personally very interested in camera trapping as you just never know what the pictures will show you and it’s always incredibly exciting to have a first look through the pictures. Thanks to the South Luangwa Conservation Society, the camera traps arrived in Nsumbu only one week after I got here, and so the camera trapping adventure started.

Our very first trial with the camera traps led me to the plains in the very heart of Nsumbu National Park. Honestly, other than a whole lot of puku, some baboons, and the occasional genet, I wasn’t expecting to find too much. I strongly urge anyone who would think that this would be a presumptuous conclusion to go onto the World Wide Web and search for Nsumbu National Park; even most of the peer-reviewed literature I found when I was getting ready for this trip state that Nsumbu is pretty much depleted. Well, they (and with that me) couldn’t have been more wrong as the wildlife in Nsumbu is alive and kicking and our camera traps were soon to reveal its secrets. As for our first trail with the camera traps, neither Craig, nor me, nor any of the scouts could have possibly wished for what we found those first few days out in the park.

A hippo having a bath
A hippo having a bath
Happy to see that the camera is still there
Happy to see that the camera is still there

Let me cut straight to the facts here, three days of trapping resulted in over 7000 pictures (I have to admit that many of these were pictures of grass swaying in the wind). The very first night, the cameras were visited by curious common duikers, side-striped jackals and even some hyenas. I thought we were already pushing our luck with these images when I retrieved the cameras to set them up in a different area the next day, but Nsumbu had more surprises in store for me.

Thanks to the efforts of CLT, the elephant population seems to be on the increase in Nsumbu NP over the last few years and the park hasn’t lost a single elephant in over 1.5 years now. However, most of the population moved to one specific part of the reserve were they felt safe when poaching was rife. Recently, elephants have started taking back the land that once belonged to them, wondering further into the park one step at a time. This is incredibly good news to me as this clearly shows that things are changing in Nsumbu NP. Seeing elephants outside of this “formerly elephant stronghold” still is highly exceptional and probably one of the biggest rewards for CLT. Keeping this information in mind, you can imagine how stoked I was to see elephants passing through a major hippo trail (and passing by one of my camera traps) on both of the nights the cameras were there. Next to that, these weren’t just wondering lone bulls and bachelor herds; these were proper breeding herds up to about 15 individuals strong with quite some juveniles among them. Just when I thought this first trial couldn’t get any better, a serval showed up on the camera screen putting the cherry on top of the cream. The first few days of trapping were an incredible success, and I couldn’t wait for the next opportunity.

Curious elephants
Curious elephants

We are currently 34 camera trapping days further into the project and Nsumbu hasn’t disappointed me on any of these days. We haven’t found any of the big cats yet but, other than that, the results are remarkable. The number of hyenas that we encounter continuous to increase at a steady rate and I’m adding new species to the list of encountered animals every single time I take a look at the cameras. And while elephants at night were already a treat because of the reasons explained above, seeing elephants out on the plains in the middle of the day, having a splash in one of the many small pools that are starting to form because of the rainy season, must be one of the best phenomenons I ever caught on camera. If anything, the camera trapping project shows that Nsumbu National Park is very much alive and not nearly depleted yet. It is a hidden gem tucked away in far northern Zambia and it is waiting to be discovered.