Nsumbu National Park, 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