A Bold Commitment

On a recent visit to the flats: To get an idea of where the birds were, we visited a fishing camp. The fisherfolk said, there and there and there! The Ranger helped us get there. And there and there. And behold. Congregations of water birds of global significance. In the Kafue Flats. The vision of the Kafue Flats Restoration Partnership is “A Thriving Wetland For All.” — Mwape Sichilongo

The Kafue Flats in Zambia is the most important floodplain in Africa for Wattled Cranes. More than 3,000 of these majestic birds (a third of the total population) depend on the Kafue Flats for their breeding, feeding, and roosting needs. Local communities who share this floodplain with Wattled Cranes call them, Nakaala, meaning “the one who lays only one or two precious eggs.” They are the most wetland-dependent of Africa’s cranes and important indicators of the health and ecological functioning of this enormous floodplain.

A group of hippos loll in the water on the Kafue Flats, Zambia.

Many other wildlife species depend on the Kafue Flats, too, including the world’s only population of Kafue lechwe. This aquatic antelope feeds in the shallow waters of the flooded plains. Endangered Grey Crowned Cranes also find a home on the Kafue Flats, along with more than 470 bird species and hippos and crocodiles that chill in the deepwater pools.

Six traditional chieftaincies also call the Kafue Flats home. They depend on its abundant resources—grazing lands for cattle, river channels for fishing, reeds for building materials, and fertile plains for gardens. As this region becomes more drought-prone due to climate change, the Kafue Flats is an oasis of water in a parched landscape.

The country of Zambia has made an enormous commitment to putting lands into conservation—a remarkable 38 percent of the nation is designated as national parks, game management areas, and other public-private protected areas. But Zambia, like many African nations with so many demands for health, education, and welfare, lacks the resources needed to protect and manage these natural areas. The Kafue Flats are no different.

Two national parks—Lochinvar and Blue Lagoon—and the vast Kafue Flats Game Management Areas provide considerable protection “on paper” for this floodplain. But law enforcement is poorly equipped and trained and unable to cover even a fraction of these lands. Neighboring communities are not engaged in educational outreach or awareness to build understanding and support for the parks and find no employment opportunities. The management plan and land-use zoning maps are expired, and there is no funding for research to guide the wise use of floodplain resources.

Aerial view of village along the Kafue River. Text: Photo by Griffin Shanungu
Fishing village along the banks of the Kafue River. 

This perfect storm of decreasing government support and increasing rural demand for resources has spawned many threats to the Kafue Flats. Poaching of lechwe, buffalo, zebra, and other wildlife, feeding the demand for bushmeat from nearby cities, is driving a considerable decline in large mammal populations. Cattle outnumber Kafue Lechwe by more than five to one. Fishers are settling deep on the floodplain, disrupting wildlife movements and making it easier to hunt nests for eggs and chicks. Without clear regulations, mining and other resource extraction are advancing within the flats. Uncontrolled fires and invasive species are widespread. Local communities are unable to find paid employment in the park and find themselves with few options but to heavily exploit the resources of the flats beyond levels that can be sustained in the future. None of these threats bode well for the future of cranes on the Kafue Flats.

What can we do? We can commit to a better future for the Kafue Flats! This year, we were invited to sign a 20-year agreement with the Government of Zambia to help the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) restore and manage Lochinvar and Blue Lagoon National Parks and the surrounding floodplain. Our agreement follows other organizations like African Parks, WWF-Zambia, and the Frankfurt Zoological Society that have made considerable investments in Zambia’s protected areas. Together, we hope to make a brighter future for Zambia’s wildlife and people.

The agreement comes on the strength of our successful three-year project to hire local community members to remove more than 7,500 acres of the invasive shrub Mimosa pigra from vital Wattled Crane areas, creating jobs that are scarce and generating enormous goodwill towards the parks.

A Lechwe herd and Grey Crowned Crane flock intermingle on the grasslands of the Kafue Flats. Photo by Griffin Shanungu

We will increase support and training for park management and law enforcement, which is essential. We will ensure that research and monitoring lead to better adaptive management of the natural resources of the parks, using measures of success that we can track and achieve. We will also engage with the communities that depend on the Kafue Flats for their survival, working to improve their livelihoods while reducing pressure on park resources, increasing employment opportunities as scouts and land managers, and finding more land-use practices that can be sustained by the flats for the long-term.

We are confident our bold commitment will keep the lechwe roaming the floodplains and that the Nakaala will continue laying its precious eggs.

Story submitted by Mwape Sichilongo, Southern African Floodplains Regional Manager and Rich Beilfuss, President and CEO. Click here to learn more about our work in Sub-Saharan Africa.