North Luangwa field report

Date: September 30, 2022

A centre of conservation economy in North Luangwa

A team from Legacy Landscapes Fund recently visited North Luangwa National Park, a legacy landscape in northeastern Zambia. While there, they gained insight into the project’s efforts to promote national and international tourism, the inventive approach to contain human-wildlife conflict, and how nearby communities work together with the park to establish a conservation economy.   

The journey from Lusaka to North Luangwa National Park is a wonder all by itself. As we drew closer to the park, we saw fewer and fewer villages, electricity poles, and roads: instead, we took in sprawling, beautiful landscape. When we arrived, we were struck by how North Luangwa exemplifies a national park that not only protects wildlife but is a centre for conservation economy. It attracts jobs and visitors, encouraging enterprise and linking locals to greater market access.

Keeping wildlife safe

When we got the chance to explore the park, we managed to spot some of its gorgeous biodiversity: a herd of buffalo, elephants, crocodiles, hippos, and more. We were even so lucky as to catch sight of a black rhino and her young calf trotting along by the river. Black rhinos were recently reintroduced to North Luangwa, so seeing these efforts yield fruit was encouraging. The team at North Luangwa monitor wildlife by foot, vehicle and aircraft. From the sky, they have an optimal overview of the habitat and can see how wildlife moves around the park.

As well as getting to see North Luangwa’s biodiversity in action, the team showed us some of the work they do to protect these animals. We glimpsed the park’s canine unit in business: dogs and humans working together in multi-species teams to tackle illegal poaching. The dogs are trained to sniff out a long list of illicit items, from weapons and ivory to crocodile skin and pangolin scales. This helps staff to locate illegal trading and identify poaching routes.

The human members of the canine team were predominantly women: extremely strong and fit individuals accustomed to hiking miles with their working dogs at their side. One woman we spoke to told us that while her family were initially sceptical of her working outside the house, they’ve grown to be extremely proud and supportive of the important work she does.

Getting to know communities

After getting to know the park and its team, we visited several villages in the locale. North Luangwa is surrounded by many communities, who live in chiefdoms of roughly 15,000 people.

We curiously participated in a CoCoBa meeting. A CoCoBa is a community conservation bank, an initiative that allow locals to save and invest money, which was set up by the project. This bank was predominantly made up of women. The group meets weekly for a savings ritual in which women declare their savings while somebody openly counts the money to ensure transparency. As attendees, we were also invited to contribute to the bank – our offerings were funnelled into a grant fund for those in need. As we donated our money, the group celebrated our contribution with dance.

Meet the chili bombers

To tackle human-elephant conflict in the area, communities use several tools. Elephants cause several serious problems for locals, including damaging crops and consequently livelihoods. That’s why they burn chili bricks, a homemade concoction of chili oil and other substances pressed together. When lit, the bricks emit a spicy scent that elephants, with their long and sensitive trunks, can’t stand.

The other line of defence is the chili bombers. Many locals use an infrared movements detector in the fields around the village. Once an elephant enters detection range, an alarm sounds and the villagers can start trying to deter the elephants. If they’re struggling, they can call the chili bombers. The bombers will show up on bikes or motorcycles with small homemade shooting devices filled with “chili bombs”. Chili bombs are made by using a syrgine to fill ping pong balls with chili oil and petrol. These are then shot at the elephant so that the oil sticks to their skin. While it doesn’t hurt them physically, elephants can’t abide being covered in chili, so they tend to back off.

Being a chili bomber is a high-responsibility role: brigaders must be over 25, highly responsible, and can’t drink alcohol. Remuneration for their important work is currently supported by the project’s community outreach program.

Budding local tourism

On our last night in North Luangwa, we slept in the community tourism camp, which is run by a community cooperative. While the infrastructure is provided by the project and they help with the bookkeeping, the profits go to the community. This newly set up tourist infrastructure was just a guinea pig, but so far it looks like a resounding success. At USD 25 per night, the camp is affordable for Zambians as well as international tourists, encouraging an uptick in national tourism. Many self-driving, self-catering tourists can now come and visit the park from within Zambia and abroad. We spent our last night grilling vegetables on the barbeque next to the river.

As we headed back to Lusaka, several elements of North Luangwa life were deeply impressed upon us: the logistical professionalism in the project, the strong local outreach, the effective human-wildlife conflict mitigation, the sound local economy around the park, the salient role played by women, the community-led tourism efforts – and, of course, the beautiful landscapes and animals that we hope to help preserve for generations to come.

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