African Parks: 

Anti-poaching in Bangweulu Wetlands, Zambia

photos & words: Mana Meadows

The Bangweulu Wetlands in Northern Zambia cover an area of 6000km2 – requiring huge efforts to police illegal hunting activities, many of them in near-inaccessible waterlogged areas spread over wide distances. The park is mostly famous for its endemic black lechwe, and its iconic rare and threatened shoebills which are protected in the park against the live bird trade. Since African Parks took over management of the wetlands in 2008, other game populations are also increasing, and lechwe populations have almost doubled. But the fight against poaching is ongoing and patrols form part of a larger strategy to protect the area – focusing on a combination of snare removals, arrests, confiscations of illegally harvested fish and animals and illegal firearms and fishing nets. 

Boat and foot patrols form the main body of anti-poaching activities in the heart of the wetlands, while horse patrols operate in the east of the park in the miombo woodland areas surrounding the headquarters at Nkondo. The Bangweulu Wetlands model is unique in that it is not a National Park but is instead a Game Management Area - meaning that the land belongs to the local communities who live within it and have rights to fish and harvest resources from it.

The endangered black lechwe are endemic to Bangweulu. Since African Parks has taken over the management of the area in 2008, lechwe numbers have estimated to have climbed to over 50 000 animals (2015 census) - an increase in over 20 000 animals since the 2011 census! In addition to anti-poaching patrols which focus largely on the law-enforcement aspect of protecting the animals, African Parks also leads a strong community-centred approach which focuses on uplifting and educating communities so that alternative livelihoods provide people with options to move away from poaching. The wetlands are governed by Bangweulu Wetlands Management Board and the project partners with six community resource boards in addition to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW). 

A fisherman checking his fish traps greets the scout patrol. Local people are allocated permits to fish within the wetlands at certain times of the year. A fishing ban in the spawning season has resulted in increased fish stocks. 

Traditional fishing methods like the one pictured in this series of photos are environmentally friendly and allow young fish to escape. 

Generations before this fisherman have used these same fish traps. 

 They are made completely out of natural products and when abandoned are biodegradable. 

Bangweulu is known for its shoebill stork population and the wetlands provide an important breeding area for the birds. These beautiful birds are listed as rare and vulnerable and are in danger because the young fledglings are targeted for the live bird trade.  In Bangweulu a number of programmes have been implemented to conserve the species: a shoebill guard program employs local fishermen to guard the shoebill nests while improved community relations and eduction has resulted in a marked improvement in the number of nests producing fledglings. 

Snares and illegal net-fishing are one of the main challenges to the law-enforcement teams. Illegal netting (see above) with mosquito nets is a major and sinister problem: baby fish cannot escape the minute holes and as a result never get the chance to grow and breed. Other wildlife also get trapped in the nets and a big part of the scouts' work is confiscating and apprehending people who use them. 

Morning parade at Chiundaponde anti-poaching headquarters, Bangweulu Wetlands, Northern Zambia. 

Re-enactments of poacher arrests (left and below) help the scouts to prepare for a encounters with poachers. 

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