A boost to law enforcement against poaching rekindles hope in the Kafue Flats

Kelvin Steven Floyd, International Crane Foundation And Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership, African Crane Conservation Program, Restoration Ecologist, Kafue Flats Restoration Partnership (KFRP)floyds@ewt.org.za

The Kafue Flats in southern Zambia is a wetland of international importance. It is a valuable ecosystem facing extreme pressure. Excessive poaching in and around the Kafue Flats wetlands is driving massive wildlife declines, particularly of large herbivores. One of these, the endemic Kafue Lechwe (Kobus leche kafuensis), was once widespread on the flats, with more than 80,000 individuals recorded during the 1980s. But aerial surveys recorded only 28,000 Kafue Lechwe in 2015 and less than 23,000 in 2018.

Our surveys also show declines in other large mammal populations, including Plains Zebra, African Buffalo, Oribi, and Blue Wildebeest. The latter is actually now locally extinct. But poaching on the Kafue Flats is not restricted to large herbivores. Livestock herders on the flats also poach Endangered cranes and other waterbirds. The poachers hunt the adult birds illegally and collect the eggs for food. But park management faces a major challenge with limited capacity available for wildlife protection.

What’s the problem?

Despite being a wetland of local and international importance, and the most important wetland for Wattled Cranes and Kafue Lechwe in Africa, the number of wildlife police officers (WPOs) available is half what is required to protect the 6,500 km2 Kafue Flats against poaching. The area includes the Lochinvar, Blue Lagoon National Park, and the surrounding buffer zone (the Kafue Flats Game Management Area). Low patrol efforts, low coverage, and ineffective management leave this critical wetland vulnerable to degradation and plunder.

Stepping in to help combat poaching and restore the Kafue Flats

The International Crane Foundation and Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership (ICF/EWT) is addressing these issues to conserve wildlife populations. To do this, we have committed to five pillars of action. These include law enforcement, community engagement, ecological management, research and monitoring, and advocacy/education. Furthermore, we have entered a 20-year co-management agreement with the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW). In 2017, we started a community habitat restoration project to control the alien invasive plant, Mimosa pigra. The plant had taken over and degraded critical wildlife habitat. By 2020, we had cleared and restored about 2,350 ha of wetlands for wildlife.

Why law enforcement?

Strengthening law enforcement to stop poaching on the Kafue Flats is a top priority. And so we must recruit and deploy fully equipped, trained, and motivated personnel for targeted anti-poaching patrols. By supplementing government law enforcement capacity in this way, we will reduce the impact of poaching and reverse the decline of wildlife populations.

We must support law enforcement as well as community livelihoods if we are to save the Lechwe Antelope, buffalo, zebra, hippo, and others from poaching on the Kafue Flats. While this might seem off-mission for a crane conservation organisation, cranes and other threatened species depend on the Kafue Flats for grazing. Unfortunately, without big mammals like the Lechwe, the government won’t support the conservation of the Flats. They will consider them better used for growing crops or grazing cattle. This would be catastrophic for the Flats’ crane populations.

Wildlife heroes in the making

In February 2022, we worked with Community Resource Boards from Lochinvar and Blue Lagoon National Parks to train 55 community scouts. The scouts underwent three months of intense training at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife’s Chunga Training School in the Kafue National Park. On 7 June 2022, the scouts proudly graduated and will be deployed alongside the DNPW Wildlife Police Officers to combat poaching on the Kafue Flats. To complement their training and ensure the effectiveness of patrols, we are giving the scouts access to technology such as the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART), CYBERTRACKER, and Earth Ranger.

The ICF President and CEO, Rich Beilfuss, represented the partnership and delivered the commencement address to the scouts. The ICF/EWT’s Kim Boardman, Mwape Sichilongo, Kerryn Morrison, Lourens Leeuwner, and other employees attended the colourful graduation ceremony. Two traditional leaders also graced the proceedings to show community support of the project.

The graduating community scouts (above). ICF President and CEO Rich Beilfuss delivering the commencement address (Below right).

The deployment of these scouts is a critical component of our holistic conservation approach to protecting critical habitat for the Endangered Wattled Crane and restoring vital grazing grounds and wildlife habitat while generating local employment and income through community involvement in the scouts programme and alien invasive plant control. The project will increase government capacity to manage and protect Zambian floodplains and advance global understanding of large-scale mimosa control methods and their measurable impact on biodiversity and livelihoods.