To the east of the vast Bangweulu Wetlands, in the heart of the thick miombo woodlands which border the swamps, a small team of horses and their riders is taking up the fight against poaching.
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 hunted fish and animals, and confiscation of illegal fishing nets.
The anti-poaching horse unit was introduced in 2014 to help with these efforts. Beginning with just four horses, the team is now up to seven, with stables and paddocks recently completed for the new arrivals. For now, the unit plays its part through daily snare removal patrols which also deter illegal hunting, mostly in the woodland around the Nkondo headquarters in the east of the park. It is here where many of the animals newly relocated from other areas are introduced, and poaching is always a temptation. There are plans underway to also expand the unit’s reach to the swamps, and the management is working towards preparing the horses and scouts to be able to embark on five day long patrols which will increase their reach.
“The horses are just so ideal in this environment. They lift the patroller above the grass so he has much better visibility and he’s covering much more ground than he would normally. And he can catch up with some of these guys trying to get away much quicker,” says Park Manager Mike Wadge.
Albert Mpangachabe, the head groom who takes cares of the horses, also goes on patrols with the community scouts. “From Monday to Friday from 07.00am until dark we do snare patrols. People set snares very early in the morning while its dark, they know we will be coming with the horses as soon as its light. Removing the snares has helped us to make sure the animals are surviving.”
Horse-riding is a foreign concept in the Bangweulu area and one of the main difficulties the management face is finding people who are keen for the job. “The main challenge is that the people from this area are historically not horsemen," says Wadge. "And they don’t as a rule – and this is a generalisation – have a desire to ride a horse. But every now and again you’re lucky to find someone, like Albert. Its specialised and you need to be quite passionate about it because if you’re not, it can soon become quite a grind to get on the animal every day and spend eight hours on it. So you need to have a feel for it. You can see Albert does, he’s just got a feel for those animals and enjoys riding them. He’s the core of our little unit.”
Getting comfortable with the horses didn’t come as easily to Community Scout Victor Kabaso but with time he has become a more confident rider and he values the wider coverage they can make with the horses. “We cover a lot more ground than with a pack on our backs, we can go long distances now. It used to be painful to ride but now I am used to it and my family are laughing to see me on a horse.”
Some members of the Bangweulu Wetlands anti-poaching horse unit:
(L-R): Community Scout Victor Kabaso, Bangweulu Special Projects Manager Park Management Julie Linchant,
and headgroom Albert Mpangachabe.
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