The Hwange Lion Conservation safari
Despite having hosted several conservation focussed safaris in the past (mainly focussed on rhino notching) I knew that this particular safari was going to be very different. What I didn’t know was just how different and how much of an emotional roller-coaster ride it would be.
The concept of the safari was simple. Gather a group of people who were interested in adding a conservation education and contribution element to their safari experience. Hwange National Park was the perfect site for this safari given how local communities, private safari operators and the National Park interact and how so many of the threats facing Lions (illegal bushmeat trade, habitat loss and fragmentation, unsustainable trophy hunting, and conflict with local people due to the real or perceived threat lions pose to livestock) are present in this system.
Given the nature of this safari, this trip report is quite extensive. If you don’t have the time to read the full report, please at least take 3 minutes to watch this short video of the safari experience:
The safari experience was essentially split into two parts, the first taking place at the beautiful Khulu Bush Camp in the Forestry Reserve section on the edge of the Hwange National Park.
Arriving at Victoria Falls Airport around mid-day we were met and boarded our 2.5 hour road transfer south to Khulu Bush Camp in the Sikumbi Forest Reserve. Met by Sharon Stead of the Amalinda Collection and Mother Africa Trust as well as Paul Funston, we settled into our rooms and headed out on a short afternoon drive , enjoying sundowners on the Dete Vlei in the company of massive herds of elephant and buffalo.
The interactions, discussions and experiences that followed over the next two days are difficult to put into words or even capture in images, but I have done my best to recount these moments to give you an idea of what our group of four guests experienced.
The WILDCRU Lion Guardians
Our first interaction after a morning game drive in the National Park was with the Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit’s (WILDCRU) Long Shield Lion Guardian Program.
Lovemore Sibanda is WildCRU’s Hwange Lion Research Community Liaison Officer and Long Shields Lion Guardian Project Coordinator. The Long Shields Project aims to reduce livestock losses to lions and, therefore, the number of lions lost to livestock owners when they retaliate by poisoning and snaring lions. This is achieved through:
- helping local communities recover lost livestock and record conflict incidents,
- strengthening weak livestock kraals in efforts to prevent lions from breaking in to kill livestock,
- training local “Lion Guardians” that are able to report stock losses and warn their communities when GPS-collared lions are in the vicinity.
Rural communities living alongside protected areas are often impacted by human-wildlife conflict with livestock depredation by lions and hyaenas. Community members will often poison carcasses and intentionally kill perceived problem animals which undermines conservation efforts in the region. Research in communities surrounding Hwange National Park and other areas, has shown that seasonal livestock herding practices are particularly important in managing the levels of conflict with most incidents taking place when livestock are left grazing unattended and when livestock are not kept safe in lion proof bomas at night.
Lovemore chatted through some of his research results and painted a picture of how difficult it was for lions, especially male lions, to survive in a system which is surrounded by local communities and consumptive utilisation zones. Not a single male lion featured on images on their display wall (featured below) is alive. Whilst the reasons surrounding their deaths vary, most have been hunted.
The Longshileds Lion Guardian programme headed by Lovemore is a community based initiative which employs local community members to conserve predators, protect local communities and reduce the loss of livestock to predators such as Lion and Hyaena. The lion Guardians educate the local community members on best-practices for building bomas and herding their cattle. They are also responsible for patrolling areas around local communities using GPS technology and tracking skills to locate and chase lions away with Vuvuzelas.
As part of the funds raised through this safari guests handed over 7 brand new bicycles which would help the Guardians cover greater distances during their patrols as well as making more regular contact with the local communities.
It was important for us to get a sense of what it was like to live in one of the local communities surrounding Hwange National Park and we joined the Guardians in a visit to a nearby villages to see the mobile boma concept in practice.
The use of mobile bomas in the local community has not only helped to prevent livestock loss but has also helped to increase productivity and fertility of the land. Cattle kept in a boma (enclosure) over night trample the soil and break the soil cap allowing for urine and faeces to nitrify the underlying soil. After a period of time the mobile boma is moved to another area and the initial boma site is used to grow crops which have been shown to produce far greater yields from crops such as maize.
Standing in the open beneath baking sun in the middle of nowhere it was hard to imagine that a piece of land that was this bare could ever produce anything, let alone enough to support several households. Seeing the mobile boma and the droppings that would eventually allow this soil to produce crops made it very clear just how important the work of the Lion Guardians was in this region.
Lovemore has also written an educational comic booklet entitled ‘Vusa the lion Guardian’, which is aimed at educating school children on human-wildlife conflict and encouraging communities to adopt positive attitudes towards the conservation of wildlife.
Brent Stapelkamp and the Soft Foot Alliance
The Soft Foot Alliance is a new Trust dedicated to improving the lives and landscapes of people living on the boundary of Hwange national park and at the same time achieving a sustainable co-existence with wildlife. The Soft Foot Alliance serves to design and implement long-term sustainable solutions that promote human-wildlife co-existence. Lion, Hyena, Elephant, Baboon and Honey Badger are the main focal species as they impact people’s livelihoods on the park’s boundaries.
Soft Foot Alliance founder Brent Stapelkamp specialised in the conflict between lions and worked closely with Lovemore in setting up the Longshield Lion Guardians programme. It soon became apparent to him that in order to make meaningful, long-term changes to people’s behaviour in terms of lions and the conflict between the two, one needed to approach the situation from the people’s perspective FIRST.
By designing actions that firstly improve the lives and the livelihoods of the people living with these animals and, secondly promote the conservation of the animal, they hope to achieve co-existence between the two.
Herding, or lack thereof, is the single biggest reason that lions kill livestock around Hwange National Park’s boundaries.
“Something like 90% of cattle killed by lions are grazing unattended and yet Africans have had a deep culture of attending livestock since time began. Something has changed! Now, as a lionman, I would have seen that and told people to herd their cattle to avoid this situation and that would be that, but from our new perspective we stop to ask the question: “Why aren’t you herding your cattle?”
The answer is a simple one and without malice or ambiguity “herding is seen as a dead-end job and one without prospects”. Hardly an interesting career choice for the traditional demographic that herds cattle… young men!
“Our challenge then was clear and that was to turn herding into an opportunity, rather than a dead-end. This type of thinking drives our every decision now, from creating the mobile boma project to the trade skills and other projects that we run in the community”
Brent welcomed us into his home, which his wife built with her bare hands and feet, and took us through the various adaptations that they have made to their lifestyle to ensure that they tread lightly on the land. We joined him on a walk through the village, past a newly installed borehole and made our way down to an area where the community had begun work on a vegetable garden.
Along the edge of a massive erosion gully we entered the permaculture garden site. Community members from around 30 households had contributed their time and man-power to the preparation of the wicking beds and construction of the rock-packed aprons. Brent explained how the focus at this site was to improve soil quality, catch rainwater and grow abundant and varied food on smaller parcels of land without using any chemical pesticides or fertilizers. The hope is that this site, in probably the worst possible location imaginable, would become a shining example of how with the right techniques and application, communities could begin to provide for themselves in a more efficient and rewarding manner.
Wooden boxes hung between two poles are scattered around the diamond mesh fence surrounding the garden.
These are bee-hive fences.
“Elephants are crop-raiders and, in the main, this happens at night. They are highly intelligent and can be extremely dangerous when people try to chase them out of fields at night with only a drum or horn at hand. Our community has not been immune to such elephant crop raiding; they devastate a crop field and it is not unusual for them to destroy a family’s entire year’s food, and livelihood, in one, single raid.”
Given the success of the mobile boma project where in over 3 years of use no stock animal has been killed in a mobile-boma by either a lion or a hyena, Brent and his team decided to introduce bee-hive fences in their community. The aims of this project are:
- To ideally eliminate, but at least minimise crop loss and ensure a families food source and income are protected.
- Create new social enterprises, training local beekeepers to produce organic honey and bees wax products for sale the community and region.
- Demonstrate to the community that this is a good way of minimising conflict with the elephants who share our region
Our plan is to use bee hives thought the community to not only protect crops but also forest areas to help with regeneration of native woodland surrounding the community. Once manufactured the bee hive boxes are strung up around the perimeter of field, so that as an elephant tries to enter the field, they will move the rope and disturb the bees.
Manufacturing the beehives and also training to be beekeepers provides new skills to the community’s young herders and an opportunity for them to generate funds for their families. Everything from the actual beehive boxes right the way through to the smokers are made by young herders who are being up skilled in the field of carpentry.
Eager to show us the site where the beehives and other items were manufactured, we followed Brent to the workshop and the home base of their Co-herd or Ndawonye program as well as the Kulisumpula ladies jewellery line (manufactured from beads made form recycled glass bottles).
“This program has been designed to rebuild the status of herding in the community and with the young male demographic group. Only the young men who agree to join the team of local herders get access to training and an opportunity to be a part of the growing number of social enterprises the Soft Foot Alliance is developing in our local community.”
This program has rebuilt the status of the herding community in a number of ways.
- It has given herders uniforms and linked them with the local Lion Guardians by giving them cell phones and setting up Whatsapp groups.
- The herders and the community have been given permaculture training and have been supported to develop holistic grazing plans that can help regenerate the grasslands instead of overgrazing it.
- Herders work in groups and monitor cattle collectively. This level of collaboration means that they can share the load and get some time off from their duties
- Most importantly for the herders, this means that during their time off they get access to training to learn new trades and are a part of developing new social enterprises.
The Soft Foot Alliance has hired a carpenter to train the ‘Co-Herd’ team members. This has resulted in furniture and hardware enterprises, making everything from beehive boxes and beds to front doors. These skills enable the herders to develop products that they can sell and so they can provide for their families and develop a more financially secure future. In turn they mentor the next generation, so that when they move on, their cattle will still be looked after and their younger brothers will also have an opportunity to develop new trade and business skills.
All this means that the local herders have regained their status in the community, young men now are willing to do this job and the cattle are brought back each night to the mobile bomas keeping them safe from predators and reducing human-wildlife conflict.
One of the first statements that Brent made when we met him was this:
“Traditionally, local communities living on the edge of protected areas take all of the stings and don’t get any of the honey. In order to have some sort of common ground both the stings and the honey need to be shared”.
It sounds so obvious and easy but, in reality, its not that simple. The efforts of people like Brent and the Soft Foot Alliance generally don’t get nearly as much exposure as the plethora of species specific conservation programmes or initiatives despite being just as, if not more, important in addressing the issues.
If you’d like to get in touch and support Brent and The Soft Foot Alliance please check out their website here or get in touch with me directly.
Sharon Stead and the Mother Africa Trust
That evening around the dinner table at Khulu Bush Camp Sharon Stead gave us an even greater understanding of the gravity of the situation facing all people of Zimbabwe. As an operator wedged firmly between the National Park and the Local community she is all to familiar with the tensions that exist between these two entities. Sharon has established the Mother Africa Trust, which provides a way for people to “give back” to both the environment and to the people of Zimbabwe. Mother Africa seeks to make a positive difference in the areas of education and cultural and environmental research & conservation.
With every project that they create – or become involved with – their guiding aim is to make it beneficial to the local communities, their natural environment and their volunteers.
Their project prerequisite ‘Deed of Trust’ aims include:
- To source and channel resources for community and wildlife development and conservation linked to enhancing sustainable tourism.
- To support children who have not had the same educational benefits or opportunities in life as others.
- To support orphans and orphanages with financial and other resources.
- To support disabled individuals by providing for some of their demonstrated needs.
- To assist rural schools, clinics, orphanages and individuals with specific needs by linking them with volunteers who can assist with those needs with the permission and cooperation of the relevant departments and authorities.
- To recruit professionals internationally who are willing to donate their time to support remote communities and wildlife projects.
- To support worthy conservation initiatives such as anti-poaching operations to enhance the survival of wildlife for future generations.
- To support the rehabilitation and replanting of indigenous forests.
As part of the safari donations from our guests the Mother Africa Trust volunteers from the Mother Africa Trust were able to construct a lion-proof boma for a local community member who had lost 3 donkeys to lions just days before our arrival.
A short morning bush walk from camp the next morning was the ideal way to digest all that we had seen and experienced over the preceding days as we prepared for the second chapter of our journey into the Hwange National Park.
The Hwange National Park
A 3 hour drive from the main gate saw Dr Funston giving guests a post-graduate level “lecture” of lion biology and behaviour culminating with an arrival at Davison’s Camp on the eastern edge of Hwange National Park. In addition to our focus on lion conservation we would be looking to photograph the wildlife of the region as the daily itinerary shifted back into a more normal morning and afternoon Game Drive routine.
More on that later though as I’d like to stick with the focus on conservation.
An extended morning drive saw us making our way to the south of the Wilderness safaris concession to meet up with the Scorpions Anti-Poaching Unit based at Wexau.
Ultimately, the Scorpions APU objectives are as follows:
- To provide a practical, on-the-ground response to the problem of bushmeat poaching and snaring by removing wire snares and arresting poachers.
- To collect data on distribution, trends and potential impact of poaching on wildlife populations and, if possible, measure the benefits provided by anti-poaching activity. Significantly less is known about bushmeat hunting in African wooded savannah habitats compared to the bushmeat trade in tropical forest systems, so this is important in quantifying and understanding the extent of the problem.
- To provide logistical support for ZPWMA anti-poaching operations where possible.
Most of the patrols are done on foot with the team spread out with a distance of about 5 to 10 metres between each member. The team then walks through a particular area in an extended line patrol sweeping the area for snares and signs of poaching activity.
The Scorpions also provide transport for patrol deployments and transport of arrested poachers to police custody.
We left the Scorpions and stopped for a bush-breakfast before making our way to the next initiative – the Children in the Wilderness Eco Club at the Ngamo Primary School.
What is an Eco-Club you ask? Eco-Clubs are an initiative of Children in The Wilderness, a non-profit organisation supported by ecotourism company Wilderness Safaris to facilitate sustainable conservation through leadership development and education of rural children in Africa.
These clubs give learners who are interested in the environment a chance to meet, learn, discuss and expand their knowledge of environmental issues. The interactive, fun sessions are designed to also be informative. Environmental projects and tasks are earmarked and organized in cooperation with the community members and teachers. The children are encouraged to participate in the planning process and come up with their own ideas in order for them to take ownership of their clubs and the projects. The Eco-Clubs are increasingly providing positive community development while reaching a wider community.
After our tour of the school grounds we regrouped near one of the classrooms where the children enjoyed a game aimed at helping them understand how both predators and prey use their senses to survive in the wild. One child was blindfolded and sat in the centre of the circle. Much like a zebra in the dead of night, they had to use their sense of hearing to pinpoint the approach of another child, acting as the predator. The predator on the other hand had to move as quietly as possible towards the prey and grab a box of crayons without being detected.
There was then a Q&A session around poaching which addressed which animals were under threat of being poached, why they were targeted for poaching, and why poaching is bad. I was really impressed by the enthusiasm and level of knowledge shown by the kids who are quite literally growing up in the middle of nowhere.
The lesson on poaching was stepped up a notch as the eco-club members were asked to make posters aimed at educating members of the community around the subject. We had just moved into the classrooms where the children would prepare their posters when one of the guests came over to me saying “That’s my photo!”.
Sure enough, there on the wall was a printed image of a herd of elephants drinking at Elephant Bay on the Chobe River which our guest Simon had captured a number of years ago whilst on safari with Gerry. It immediately made both Simon and I realise how important an image can be. In a world where an image has a very limited lifespan on various social media platforms, here was a printed image captured years ago but being used to educate children on the importance of protecting our natural resources. Simon has since been in touch and is eager to share more of his work with the Eco-Clubs and Children in The Wilderness as he has seen first hand the kind of impact that they can have in affecting a positive change.
I have no doubt that this trip will leave a lasting impression on both the children and the scorpions.
Sitting and writing this I’m not sure that I have been able to do any justice to the experiences and interaction with the Long Shield Lion Guardians, Brent Stapelkamp and the Soft Foot Alliance, The Scorpions APU or the children of Ngamo Primary school. I hope that i have at least been able to give you an insight into these interactions and experiences and have been able to convey a sense that, despite the enormity and complexity of the situation facing wildlife in general, there are some amazing people doing incredible work to help protect our natural resources and simultaneously uplift local communities
The final interactional element of this safari comes in the form of Dr Paul Funston, Panthera’s Lion & Cheetah Programme Co-Ordinator.
Dr Paul Funston – Panthera
Paul and I first met back in 2001 when I was starting my studies in Game Ranch management at the then Pretoria Technikon. I saw Paul as mentor and ended up completing my post graduate studies at the Tech with him as a supervisor on the research aspect of my qualification. Since then we have always remained in touch and it was actually over a casual coffee meeting her in Fourways that Sharon just happened to be present at that the idea of this safari was born.
It is impossible for me to even begin sharing the kind of depth and detail of the information that Paul supplied over our seven days of safari. I often referred to our group as having squeezed him like a tube of toothpaste as we asked a seemingly endless list of questions. These range from various aspects of lion biology, behavioural ecology, conservation and more. Paul, recognised as a leading authority on lions and one of the most published authors on lions as a species, was not only able to answer every single question, but took things further and ensured that our group were able to connect all of the pieces of what is an intricate puzzle.
I can safely say that one of the most impactful conversations we had during this safari revolved around the bush-meat trade. The chat took place around the dinner table at Davison’s Camp and was intended to give us an idea of how important the work being done by the Scorpions APU was. I see myself as someone who is pretty clued up and in touch with conservation issues but the discussion around the table that night blew me away. I had always interpreted bushmeat as being a subsistence activity carried out by people who were simply looking to provide for their families. Whilst this may in fact be the case in some instances, the bushmeat trade is a commercial operation. Demand is rising amid expanding populations and an increasingly commercial, urbanized trade. As a result, bushmeat snaring is growing in intensity and has become a primary threat to many species’ survival.
Bushmeat is known to fetch up to 3 times more money per kilogram than beef. It is seen as a delicacy and is in high demand. One of the worst affected areas seems to be Zambia’s Kafue National Park where Paul recounted scenes of spider-like networks of paths used by poachers to get into and carry meat out of the National Park. He mentioned that around 70-80% of bushmeat harvested from Kafue National Park ends up being transported to Lusaka and copper belt where it is sold.
The reduction in both number and diversity of prey-species has a direct impact on the number of predators that a system can support. Kafue National Park in Zambia should have a carrying capacity of around 2 000 lions but sadly has less than 200. Thats around 10% of carrying capacity on an apex predator.
Paul referred to this as the silent savannah syndrome. Ideal and suitable habitat completely void of any wildlife.
Putting the problem into perspective on a much larger scale he told our group how West Africa had experienced a 95% reduction of all biota in the last century.
Niokolo Koba National Park in Senegal at roughly ten thousand square kilometres has less than 20 lions.
More than 300k zebra and wildebeest die in snares each year in Tanzania as these species move on their annual migration.
Wildlife is also on the decline on the fringes of Botswana’s Okavango Delta and it has been suggested bushmeat trade as the main reason for this decline with trucks regularly ferrying meat throughout Botswana. Preliminary reports show the extraction of 10’s of thousands of animals from the delta eco-system each year.
Another important aspect of this is is the proximity of local communities and other development (such as road networks) in and around protected areas. Studies have shown that the key driver of leopard density in Gabon is proximity to a village. Areas located within 5km of a villlage have no leopards and no game species. Leopard density in areas located 5-10km from a village increases to around 3/100 square kilometres, jumping to 10/100 square kilometres for areas further than 10 kilometres away. The recent development of forestry roads provide access to more remote areas and essentially develop and piosphere effect (a radial pattern of attenuating impact) along these road networks.
It was a very sombre mood around the fire that night as we struggled to digest all that we had heard and tried our very best to make sense of it all. One of the guests raise the important point that the conservation crisis in Africa is often dominated by the rhino horn and elephant ivory trade that the demand for bushmeat and the impact that snaring activities has is completely overlooked.
In Paul’s words:
Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine how many animals are struggling for their lives in a snare right this minute…
This is just one example of the kind of discussion and facts that Paul shared with our group during the safari and I cannot thank him enough for his massive contribution. I know that the seemingly endless list of very deep, insightful and intellectual questions left him feeling exhausted at the end of each day but also realise that he knows he has changed the way that our guests see and understand conservation efforts.
In summary, here is a breakdown of how the funds raised through this safari were used.
What about the photography aspect?
Right. Enough words. Photography, whilst not the core focus of this safari, was also on the agenda and we had some amazing encounters and photographic opportunities during our time at both Khulu Bush Camp and Davison’s Camp.
These two young males have held territory since the age of around 3. This is not normal for male lions but as a direct result of the vacuum created through the selective removal of other dominant lions through hunting, there was a void which needed to be filled and these two young boys took their chances. They now control the Ngamo Pride, Back Pans Pride and the Stumpy Tail pride and their respective home ranges around the pans on the Eastern edge of Hwange.
This is a huge area and the risk associated with controlling so many prides is that they will inevitable run the risk of loosing cubs to marauding males looking to stake a claim in the area. At the moment, their youngest cubs are with the Back Pans pride which, should they start to receive pressure from other young dispersal male lions, is where they will most likely start to concentrate their efforts, leaving one of or both of the Ngamo or Stumpy Tail pride.
This image of the male known as Butcher resting just metres away from the active railway line which marks the boundary between Hwange National park and the Forestry Reserve where a mix of both consumptive utilisation and eco-tourism takes place says it all.
That railway line has been the difference between life and death for so many dominant male lions in this eco-system.
The Stumpy Tail Pride.
A brief background on this group of 3 young males and 3 young females. There are no adult females present in this pride as 2 were killed in conflict situations with local communities and the third female, Stumpy Tail, was killed in a train collision a couple of months ago.
Running around with 3 attractive females these young males are approaching a stage of life where they will most likely be chased off by the dominant pair of Butcher and Mauwa.
An Unknown Male
An encouraging sign during our time in the Davisons’ area was the sighting of two “unknown” male lions at two separate pans. As mentioned earlier, the dominant pair of the region can’t be everywhere at once and the absence of regular roaring and scent marking in prime areas where these two males were sighted is what will ultimately place their spatial dominance at risk.
The Back Pans Pride
This pride managed to evade us for a number of days leaving only fresh tracks leading to and back out of Scott’s Pan for us. They had obviously killed something large in the wooded areas surrounding the pan emerging only to drink at first light before returning to their meal.
We did however manage to catch them in some glorious light on two mornings.
Other Big Cats
Hwange isn’t known for its leopard or cheetah sightings but we were treated to a leopard drinking infront of camp on our first night. Despite several hours of tracking, managed to miss a cheetah with 4 young cubs.
With the first rains yet to arrive the general game species were never far from camp or the other pans in the concession and provide us with some great photographic opportunities.
“So much more than your normal photo safari. 7 intense days learning about and discussing the increasing common dilemma of trying to preserve both wildlife habitats and human settlements. Throw in the expert knowledge of Dr Paul Funston, Panthera’s senior lion and cheetah program director and this adventure comes alive. Often thought provoking and sometimes emotional, it makes you re-examine so much of what you assumed to be true. Future trips will never be the same!”
Simon Beevers – South Africa
“Really awesome planned and executed safari! Always a pleasure with Andrew, but this one delivered great depth of understanding regarding challenges facing lions and the dedication and optimism of incredible people answering them from all perspectives. In addition to the incredible images, improved photography skills, and inspiring travel companions I’ve come to take for granted with Wild Eye, this time I’ve brought back seeds of conservation knowledge I’m just beginning to explore.. and share!”
Deborah Kane – USA