Stashed away in a warehouse along a back street of the Lundazi township in Zambia was a pile of rifles. About 100 firearms have been voluntarily given up that week by a generation of killers, all who had served umpteen sentences in jail. They had simply been practicing a deed handed down from their forefathers. Their crime was trying to make a living for their impoverished families.
They shot elephants and rhinoceros for the ivory. Lions and crocodiles for their skins. Bullock and any fleet foot animal feed to their tiny bush communities. Not only did these men surrender their hand made firearms. Sacks full of snares and traps had also been picked up in the bush by rangers and delivered to the warehouse. These bases are owned by the Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) a Zambian founded limited company.
COMACO was formed to promote the safe keeping of land and animals in Zambia. The idea was to create an environment friendly market place that rewarded the communities with 65% of the income for improved methods of farming cotton, root crop and fruit. In the case of hunting, the authority met with the poachers. Their endeavour was a tough one, to reform the hunters and make them into more responsible and productive people.
These hunters, poachers and gatherers from the remote Eastern Province, have volunteered an amnesty to become reformed characters. They are now the conservationists of their environment and its wildlife. A great deal of time and patience was invested with these men who with a gun had the sole instinct to kill animals. Gradually, the gospel permeated through the communities. A steady trickle of armoury, traps and hundreds of snares were given up. Many of the men had reached the conclusion that COMACO’S proposal might be more financially productive. A precarious income from killing animals and periods spent in jail had mirrored the error of their ways.
Dale Lewis from North Carolina in America, represents the Wildlife Conservation Society of Zambia. COMACO was formed with government backing and sponsors in the private sector. As a co-ordinator, Dale has educated the impoverished communities to realise the benefit of strictly controlled tourism that is now being established in North Luangwa. A recent count revealed over 32,000 snares and more than 1,000 illegal firearms had been voluntarily surrendered by 300 hunters. Each man went through a rigorous test of his integrity and innate skills. Those who passed were presented with a certificate of merit stating to the country that they are reformed characters.
These men now make an income from legal markets. Over recent months there has been increased production of alternative food sources like poultry, goats, over one hundred fish ponds and properly irrigated vegetable plots. COMACO take 35% of the profits, which is channelled, back into proper marketing and sales of the produce. This project has been partly responsible for the replacement of game meat consumption.
Starting this year, COMACO’S subsidiary – Its Wild! will promote a short five month annual season of limited tourism into the bush. Three bush camps based along the Luangwa River at Mwanya, Chifunda and Chicwa have been constructed to a basic economical design. The hunters have built these twin bedded chalets which have open air ensuite bathrooms with hot an cold running water piped to a shower, wash basin and flush toilet fed from nearby gravity tanks. Quite what the local people made of these modern facilities, is open to speculation.
Thomson Tembo at Chifunda is a reformed hunter who has become a legend in Zambia. He had poached with his father since he was a small boy. His life has been punctuated by jail sentences for killing animals. The final stretch of five years came after he had dispatched five elephants and two rhinoceros within one day.
Thomson is a slight man with sharp, dark eyes. He told how upon release from prison, he needed little persuasion to lay down his arms. The alternative being offered was a more structured life. His first duty was to assist in the building of the chalets at the Chifunda bush camp. For the first time in his life, this natural loner felt part of a team. To chop trees for the basic structure, cut reed and make mud brick walls was a real pleasure. He was regularly rewarded and his family would benefit from his labours. Like his friends, at just over 50 years, Thomson had found a new and worthwhile purpose to life.
The tiny bush camp was virtually completed at this visit. Dale Lewis then spoke to Thomson about the job of becoming a tracker scout. In this capacity, Thomson and his friend Wellington, the latter who had served in the Zambian Army and spoke excellent English, would combine forces. Thomson refused to carry the gun. He left that responsibility to Wellington. He was happy to walk along animal tracks and use his incredible instinct to find animals on foot. The pair agreed to take this party of two at the first light of day out for the first ever exploratory walking safari.
As the sun appeared over the wintery Luangwa River, a mist rose skywards. Slowly, the air warmed over this pristine region. The clarity of light and atmosphere caused the bush to gleam. If this was the Garden of Eden, where could I find Eve? Thomson seemed to relish our enthusiasm for his home territory. Very soon he peered down and pointed out the tracks of hippopotamus departing the river over night to seek food in land. Then we saw the heavier print of elephant going in the opposite direction to drink.
Luangwa is a lion’s larder. The big cats spied upon a lone bullock from the long grass by the river. Two lions took out the beast while close by, a crocodile amputated the front legs of a zebra. Wellington murmured a keen piece of advice. “The bush has eyes. Make sure you see them first”. That night, under a clear, star spangled sky; Thomson borrowed our spot light for a short walk. Amidst the inky darkness, we came abruptly to a halt. The hunter shone the beam into the undergrowth. The light revealed dozens of eyes peering out from the bush and the treetops. We really were walking in the “Kingdom of Animals”.
The track between Chifunda and the camp at Mwanya caused some concern. This was a path finding mission when things might go wrong.
We came across a dried riverbed that appeared impossible to cross.
So Mark Sprong, our experienced leader from Land and Lake Safari in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, decided to back track and try what looked to be an alternative route through the dense long grass. In the event, we got lost. Suddenly, from nowhere, a group of hunters appeared. They advised that we should reverse and try the riverbed route. Inevitably, we got beached in the dry, powdery silt and sand bed. With the aid of long grass and logs pushed under the wheels, we were able to progress after an hour of hard work. This will not happen in future now the path-finding has been completed.
Which might explain why visitors are limited to a five month period after the rainy season. The track between Chifunda and Mwanya would have been a morass had we made the same safari in non-stop rain. At Mwanya, Beza Aaron was another reformed hunter. We learnt of another aspect to this cultural reformation.
Beza presented himself in what appeared to be an ex-army outfit. He was content to carry the mandatory gun. The little man confided that there was a good chance of seeing hippo, elephant and crocodile. We stopped on several occasions as Beza peered into the undergrowth. He would sniff the air, then point to possible movement in the middle distance. It was at this point I realised how modern living had deadened our vital senses of sight, hearing and scent. As we inched forward, suddenly we were confronted by five elephants. Our tracker then appeared to take fright. With both arms flaying, he shouted “Back, get back”.
When the leader, the very person in whom you invest complete confidence, apparently shows fear, it can be unnerving for those following. Later in the day after we returned to the Mwanya bush camp, Beza explained his reaction to the elephants. He confessed that several years ago, something terrible happened while he was hunting with his Father. They crossed the path of a lone elephant. The beast picked his father up with his trunk, then dashed him to the ground and proceeded to trample him to death. A perfectly rational explanation to Beza’s respect for the elephant.
However, another ex-hunter explained that Beza was not necessarily scared. Remember, he was a tracker carrying a gun. Despite the bad personal memory, he reacted with such urgency because his first instinct upon sighting the animal would have been to shoot. The consequence of such an action could have meant another jail sentence. This had been Beza’s first experience of taking strangers along a bush walk. Tracker scouts had been instructed to only fire shots over the beast’s head as a warning if it showed menacing behaviour. They can shoot to kill the animal if it moved upon a human prey.
Mark Sprong is the Director of Land and Lake Safaris based in Lilongwe in Malawi. He had organised this path-finding journey into what he called ‘Raw Africa’ with the view to planning regular safaris for up to six clients starting in 2007. This was as much an adventure for Mark as it was for his guests. He advised that unlike driven safaris in popular national parks like the Paul Kruger, Masai Mara and Ngorogoro Crater, where sighting the ‘big five’ is virtually guaranteed. Walking in the North Luangwa bush required patience and awareness.
They spot skeletons of animals that have been felled or have died a natural death. Above all else, they enjoy a serenity that is all too rare in the world. Where the vapour trails of jet airliners do not criss-cross the sky. There are no suspended power cables. The rumble of distant traffic is replaced by utter silence. Mobile phones are rendered useless. Radio and television does not reach these remote corners. Only the community ranger has a radio to contact the outside world in the case of emergency .The Zambian Government together with COMACO have achieved something of a template that can be copied in various parts of wild Africa.
The pleasure of a dawn foot safari is seeing the bush blossom into life as the sun rises. These reformed hunters have a unique knowledge of their environment. They can read animal tracks like a book and explain what has happened when trees have been felled. Why some bushes are marked with hippo dung. They spot skeletons of animals that have been felled or have died a natural death. Above all else, they enjoy a serenity that is all too rare in the world. Where the vapour trails of jet airliners do not criss-cross the sky. There are no suspended power cables. The rumble of distant traffic is replaced by utter silence. Mobile phones are rendered useless. Radio and television does not reach these remote corners. Only the community ranger has a radio to contact the outside world in the case of emergency.
It was all very exciting and slightly disorganised on my visit. But as from this year, Mark will very running a professional itinerary to these bush camps during the very short season. To be honest, you don’t have be Doctor David Livingstone to survive these safari’s. Just make do and mend as you go along.
Rob McDowell, a Malawian now based in Cornwall, operates his company ‘African Safari Roots’ from Newlyn. www.africansafariroots.com, Tel: 01736 367635. He is an experienced safari man who reckons this new venture will appeal to trekkers and nature lovers.
Copyright © 2008 Max Le Grand