As we returned to the camp from our evening lion viewing, we passed the staff housing area, which included a place for John, a member of the ZAWA anti-poaching patrol, who lives at McBrides’ camp. Patson, a member of the camp staff, had been out on anti-poaching patrol that day with John. They had apparently found a well-used, but unoccupied, poacher camp, and brought back bones and animal parts that had been left behind. They said that they had burned all the blankets and other equipment that had been left behind by the poachers.
Poaching had been very much on our minds as we planned this trip. From our research, we knew that Kafue National Park was vast, and that ZAWA was significantly understaffed and underfunded. In our travels, we heard varying opinions about ZAWA, and my guess is that the variety was due to the variety of ZAWA personnel from location to location. The personnel seem to be spread thin over the massive national parks, thus are probably minimally supervised. In some places, the attitude was that ZAWA was corrupt and in cahoots with the poachers. In other places, ZAWA was heralded as the savior of the national parks. I tend to believe both are true.
Zambia is replicating what other countries have found successful: creating GMA’s (game management areas) surrounding national parks. They provide buffer areas around the parks that allow for limited hunting, which is a lucrative business for many African countries. But, without the personnel to manage the access into the parks, and with minimal infrastructure to facilitate patrols, most management occurs within the radius of the camps.
We were told that the poachers use bicycles to get into areas, and to move their “catch” to market. Often, ZAWA are also only provided bicycles for patrol, and are often outgunned and outnumbered by the poachers. Interestingly enough, the poachers are not only after ivory, but also animal parts that are powerful for traditional medicine. This can include vulture heads and parts of rarer animals, like pangolin.
And all of those bush fires? Some blame them on the poachers, either to drive animals, or to sprout new grass to attract the grazers. Others blame ZAWA, saying that the bicycle patrols do not want to ride through the tall grass, so will set fires to increase visibility and reduce the chance of attack by lions. Yet others say that it is just the cycle of life in southern Africa, as most of the plants are fire adapted, and not really damaged by the smoldering ground fires. However, the fires must have human origins, since there were few clouds and no weather events to strike sparks while we were there. But, given the long human history on the African continent, human actions over the millennia may have selected for fire-resistant species.