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.”

Julie Linchant, Special Projects Manager for African Parks at Bangweulu is very involved with the horse unit. She has an equestrian background in her home country Belgium, and even pioneered horse safaris in wilderness areas in Burkino Faso. She says the horses took a little while to get used to the change in scenery. “They were scared of the water and a lot of other little things in the bush because they come from a farm and they are not used to the bush. But we’ve trained them a lot and Albert rides them almost every day so they are now used to the bush. They cross water, they’re becoming very fit and relaxed which is very good. We haven’t tried the big swamp yet, but we’ve crossed dambos where the ground is very soft and they will get water up to their elbow. Now they are comfortable doing that we are keen on trying the swamp.  We now have a good team of horses and now we just need more riders.”

Another aspect to consider is teaching the scouts (who are already new to riding) how to also track and chase down poachers from a horse as it involves specialised riding. The management aim to bring out police riders to help teach the scouts the skills required. 

Albert Mpangachabe: 

Bangweulu’s horse-whisperer 

In an area where the people are historically not used to horses, Albert, with his natural affinity for the animals is a rare exception and is using his relationship with them to teach others about horsemanship.

“I like the horses very much. My favourite is Fiddles, he is like a GPS for me. Whenever I’m very far from Nkondo, if I get lost in the bush, he knows the areas very well. Once I was in the bush and I got lost and the sun was about to set.  “Will I spend a night in the park?” I was asking myself.  But Fiddles managed to get me back to Nkondo. It was one of my best experiences.”

His job has changed his life in other ways. He’s worked his way up from working as a gardener to now being head groom. “The way I was and the way I am now is so different, I have got a very good house now. I’m helping kids, especially my nephew, to go to school. They’re in good schools, which is something that is so good for me.”

As well as focusing on anti-poaching efforts to protect the wildlife, African Parks also heavily invests in the communities in and around the wetlands. Albert says the presence of African Parks has greatly uplifted the six chiefdoms of the wetlands. “It has helped the community with building more bridges, some roads were really impassable, especially in the rainy season. With the coming of the project, everything has changed. We are enjoying, our standards have been raised.  You can see when you go to Mbole there is a market, a computer lab, some students did not know about the computers, now they are learning. Also people are working. You can see construction happening and a lot of people are still being employed from that.”

There have also been low moments, unfortunate perils of the job. Albert’s favourite horse Dory was killed by a black mamba. He is emotional as he relates the story. “It was such a sad time for me, because to me Dory was the best horse. It happened across the Nkondo stream in the bush, I was there alone. I was riding Fiddles, and Dory didn’t see the snake as she came to greet us. The black mamba rose up between Fiddles and Dory and Dory stepped on its tail. It was about to go for me but then he went for Dory. From there she was just running up and down, cantering, galloping. I caught her and I managed to get her back to Nkondo but she died 45 minutes later.” 

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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