A Zambian Experience
How A New Approach To Wildlife Conservation
Can Help People And Wildlife

By Alexander M. Dake


Recently I joined a delegation to visit Zambia organized by the Dutch chapter of the World Wildlife Fund. The goal of our trip was to learn how the WWF is developing a new approach to environmentalism based on cooperation with the local people, the government and the private sector. This model will show the way for a win-win situation with a better future for wildlife as well as for the communities living in its vicinity.

A Brief History of Zambia
Zambia, a country landlocked in the tropics of southern Africa and surrounded by unruly countries as Angola, Congo, and Zimbabwe, has a history that fits the romantic stereotypes of African travel journeys of the 19th century: discovered by the famous explorer David Livingstone in the 1840s and 1850s; rich with one of the largest copper reserves in the world; exploited at first by the British mining tycoon Cecil Rhodes and under British rule until its independence in 1964; followed by a decades-long rule by its national hero and former Marxist President Kenneth Kaunda.

After years of economic deprivation under dictatorial rule, future prospects seemed to brighten up in 1991 when Kaunda’s successor President Chiluba started a period of democratic transition and economic liberalization. More than two hundred state-owned companies were privatized, including the Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines, which was acquired in 2000 by Anglo American, the South African mining giant. However, the prospect of a positive future was short-lived. By the end of 2001, plummeting copper prices forced Anglo American to announce its divestiture from Zambia’s mining sector. To make matters worse, both local opposition and international observers denounced the Zambian presidential elections of last December as being rigged and full irregularities. This was the latest African democracy -- until the recent elections in neighboring Zimbabwe -- to fail miserably.

The last forty years for Zambia was a story of a country moving from being one of the world’s major copper producers and potentially one of Africa’s richest countries to being one of the world’s poorest through mismanagement, debt, and disease. More than 80 percent of its nine million inhabitants survive on one dollar a day. AIDS is increasing its devastating presence in Zambia: 20 percent of adults are HIV-positive. According to the United Nations, the current life expectancy in Zambia of 42 years will decrease to 25 years by 2005.

The Importance of Wildlife Conservation
When a country faces so many health, poverty, and social problems, how important can wildlife conservation be? The WWF provides the answer. Zambia, having one of the largest wetlands in Africa, fulfills an important regional role as provider of fresh water and habitat for wildlife. Wetlands are water-based ecosystems, which are the world’s source of fresh water and consist of unique flora and fauna. The world’s wetlands are under severe threat by agricultural expansion, housing and industrial schemes and irresponsible use of water. Over the last century wetlands have been halved to approximately four percent of world’s surface.

The Dutch WWF, itself based in a water-rich country, has extensive experience with the ecosystems of Dutch rivers and deltas. Its first project, in 1998, the Partners for Wetlands, focused on conservation of the wetlands while encouraging local communities to become involved with the conservation measures. The WWF reasoned that only if the local population has a vested interest in wildlife conservation, by noticing direct benefits for their own livelihood, would it actively support measures to protect their environment. For example, local and international businesses, such as farmers, agricultural firms, and hotel and tour operators, need to be convinced of the benefits of conservation for their business plans. Last but not least, if the local and national governments do not believe that their constituents have a stake in wildlife conservation, why would they bother supporting these measures?

Kafue lewcheIn Zambia, the Dutch WWF joined forces with the Zambian chapter of WWF and developed with biologists and water experts a plan for the conservation of Kafue Flats located in the Kafue River basin in central Zambia. Key parts of the plan are involving the local population and ensuring the support of local business. During our visit to the Kafue Flats region, we stayed in the Blue Lagoon Park, a beautiful area containing river channels, lagoons, and seasonally flooded green grasslands. This park is known for its diversity of birds with more than four hundred species. It is also known as the home to the Kafue lewche, a subspecies of antelope unique to the area. The lewches need dry land on which to rest, but will spend much time swimming and grazing in swamps -- exactly the type of flora found in Kafue Flats.

Over the last years the ecosystem of the Blue Lagoon Park has been seriously damaged by the various inhabitants of the area: the local electricity company ZESCO is expanding its hydropower development and changing the cycle of the natural water supply; sugar plantations are causing water pollution; and the poor local population is resorting to poaching as the only means of making a living. A vicious cycle is evident: the number of lewches and hippos has been decreasing dramatically. Cheetahs, rhinos and giraffes are extinct. The fresh water supply for many users in the region is damaged. Tourists are no longer interested in visiting the area.

However, thanks to the WWF the future of Kafue Flats and Blue Lagoon Park could look very bright. Frans Schepers, the WWF representative for the project said, “The WWF realizes that to have any long-term impact on conservation considerable effort has to be given to working together with other stakeholders in the region. Businesses need to understand that a good water supply and well-protected wildlife benefit their standing and can attract international investors. Local communities must recognize the social cost of poaching and illegal deforestation. They must also see the economic opportunities that arise from managing the flora and fauna. What we try to do is to identify common interests which are shared by conservationists, businesses, and government and to develop partnership agreements between these parties.”

The first results of the partnership agreements are already visible: ZESCO will use Dutch engineering expertise to limit the damage to the water supply. The sugar plantations will adjust their production to reduce water pollution. Another pillar of the partnerships is ecotourism. The International Ecotourism Society has defined ecotourism as travel to natural areas that both conserves the environment and sustains the well being of local people. One of the first ecotourism operators in the region is the safari company Real Africa Safaris, whose owner Edjan van der Heide has become the first international investor in the Blue Lagoon Park with cooperation from the WWF. While Real Africa Safaris is investing in improvement of the access roads to the park -- which are indeed in appalling condition as we noticed while trying to travel through the park -- and will build quality quarters for international tourists, the WWF will work with the local park administration to improve security against poaching and to reintroduce rhinos and cheetahs in the park. These measures should make the park more attractive to ecotourism, which, in turn, will create jobs for local people -- jobs that should also reduce the need for poaching. In this way, a vicious cycle of poverty and destruction of water supply and wildlife is being transformed by the WWF into a virtuous cycle of protection of nature and sustainable development for the local population.

Will this new approach of the WWF be sufficient to solve the other serious problems, which are confronting Zambia and many areas of Africa? Probably not, but everyone in our delegation agreed that with this innovative approach to wildlife conservation the first steps have been set towards a better future. This will not only bring a better future for wildlife, but also for the poorest people whose lives are directly involved. The lesson of this fascinating Partners for Wetlands project is that everyone has a stake and has a responsibility in the future of our environment, from conservationists to local businesses, from governments to tourists. Everyone can and must play a role on this path towards a better planet.

Related Web Sites:
News about Zambia 
Tourist information about Zambia
World Wildlife Fund 
World Wildlife Fund (U.S. chapter) 
World Wildlife Fund (Dutch chapter)
The Greenmoney Journal (on Ecotourism) 
The International Ecotourism Society 
Partners for Wetlands

2002, A.M. Dake


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