Millions spent keeping Zambia wildlife safe from poachers
The best time to see a lion in the wild? Just after he has eaten; he’ll be so sleepy he won’t want to move.
We had come across two that morning, looking fat and contented. I snapped away as one looked lazily down the lens at me. He got up and stretched.
“Wow, he’s enormous!” I said, spellbound.
He was easily three times my body weight — cuddly feline and killing machine in one effortlessly muscular package.
We went to see his companion. Being maneless, I thought it must be a female.
Wrong, as Phil Jeffrey, my guide, explained: “We call him Tripod, because he lost half his foot in a poacher’s snare.
“We assumed he wouldn’t be able to fend for himself and would die.
“Next time we saw him, he was unrecognisable, emaciated.
“His mane had fallen out, but he was still alive. Now he’s looking much better.”
Jeffrey knows these lions well. If it weren’t for the work he and his business partner, Tyrone McKeith, do in this remote part of Zambia, there would be no lions at all.
Established under British colonial rule in 1924, Kafue National Park is one of Africa’s oldest.
It is also vast — as big as Sri Lanka.
After independence, South Luangwa National Park was the focus for Zambia’s tourism and conservation work, and Kafue was forgotten, an uncharted wilderness.
You might imagine that, left alone, animals would flourish.
Not at all. Poaching was rife and the wildlife was almost wiped out.
That evening, over a three-course dinner on the terrace of Musekese Camp — the lodge that Jeffrey and McKeith set up here in the middle of nowhere — they told me more.
“The Kafue River runs down the middle of the park,” McKeith said, “and here on the east side was wilderness. There are a few camps to the far south and a few on the other bank upstream.
“I worked at one of them for years. At night I could hear the poachers’ guns over here.”
Jeffrey had been guiding nearby at the time.
In true start-up tradition, they got talking over beers and decided to set up a camp in this part of the park, specifically to protect the wildlife.
“When we went to the park authority, they suggested zones for new concessions close to existing lodges,” McKeith said.
“When I stuck my finger on the map here, they thought we were mad.
“There were no roads — the only way in was by river — and there was hardly any game, but that was the whole point.”
“The motivation has always been conservation,” Jeffrey explained.
“We love sharing Kafue with guests, but it’s the wildlife that comes first.”
They started with a tented camp, hacking a trail 80km through the bush for vehicles.
“It was hand-to-mouth,” McKeith said. “We shared a two-man tent for three years.”
Attracted by the uniqueness of this safari experience, guests came.
After a while, this more permanent camp — Musekese — was established.
It comprises just four luxury cabins dotted among the trees, with enormous beds, fluffy duvets, en suite bathrooms and mahogany furniture.
The front side of each is open, with a fly screen to keep out the bugs.
I lay in bed and watched warthogs roll in the mud and nodded off to the squawks and rustles of the bush.
We dined overlooking a backwater of the river with antelope grazing in the foreground, elephants behind.
It’s all off-grid, of course. Power is solar, water comes from the camp’s borehole.
It was so comfortable I had to keep reminding myself that we were a light aircraft flight, a boat trip and a jeep ride from civilisation.
Half the guests I met were repeat visitors. This place gets under your skin.
I set out at dawn next morning on a new kind of safari that Jeffreys and Tyrone plan to offer guests.
“When we started there were just two lions nearby,” Jeffrey said, as we drove along.
“Just having us around immediately put off the poachers. The two lions had cubs, so we had four. Two new males arrived.
“Lions reproduce quite quickly unmolested, so soon there were 14. Within three years, we had 26.
“It seemed it would be easy. It wasn’t.
“Realising there were more lions here, poachers moved back in.
“There’s a sad trend of wealthy city dwellers wanting to eat exotic bushmeat, and eight lions were lost to snares in a year. Now there are only 11.
“This is a battle,” Jeffrey said.
We drove deep into the park, miles from the game-drive trails.
Jeffrey and McKeith’s plan is to let tourists see the front line.
They have ploughed virtually all their profits into setting up an anti-poaching camp and training two teams of rangers, with plans for three more.
Because we would be walking in the bush, we were accompanied by Yoram Kalaba, one of the rangers, with his high-calibre rifle.
He had been based with us at the lodge all week, to provide an armed escort for walking safaris.
The early morning was cool and still, the rising sun flooded the savannah with gold.
Bushbuck and impala raised their heads, then bounced away through the grass.
Jeffrey brought us to an abrupt halt.
“Leopard!” he murmured. In fact it was two and they were mating. We tried to get closer, crawling around termite mounds.
Frustratingly, the lovers had chosen a private spot and were almost hidden in a bushy gully.
We decided not to disturb them. We drove through clumps of trees with fantastic names, such as kuduberry, wooden pear and waterberry.
Further from the lodge, we started to see bits of animal skeleton and a decrease in game.
A dusty hour later we parked the Land Rover under a tree on the fringes of the anti-poaching camp.
The contrast with the cosy, luxurious lodge could not have been starker.
We were at the battlefront. Two shipping containers had been fitted out, one serving as a command centre, the other with two cages inside: one of them an armoury, the other a cell for apprehended poachers.
In addition there was a canteen, a toilet block and our accommodation.
Investment this year topped £250,000 (R4.66m), and while there is support from the Zambia department of national parks and wildlife, plus NGOs such as the Lion Recovery Fund and Panthera, Jeffrey and McKeith are funding nearly 70% of the costs.
I chatted to Kalaba over coffee. He had finished his training nine months earlier and had already seen action, arresting poachers, removing snares, sometimes having to release wounded animals from them.
“My first encounter with poachers was scary,” he recalled.
“There were four, armed with shotguns, sitting around a fire. We ambushed them, crawling along the ground in the middle of the night. We arrested three, but one ran off.”
Kalaba and his colleagues found carcasses and snares.
“The excitement of making my first arrests was mixed with frustration that one got away,” he said.
“I began to see how vital our job is.”
There are six rangers in each team, who camp deep in the bush.
With Kalaba ahead of us with his gun, we walked for an hour in the heat, batting tsetse flies to meet one of the teams.
Six mosquito nets were slung under some trees, next to a smouldering fire.
This team was reaching the end of its three-week patrol and the rangers were looking forward to a week with their families.
So far they had made no arrests, but they would typically round up several suspects on each trip.
They use a hand-held GPS device to log wildlife and photograph suspects, carcasses and snares.
Away from the downy bedding, the gourmet dining and the G&Ts at sundown, this is the work that makes sure there is something for guests to see.
Reiterating that point, on our way back to Musekese we met the lions again. Tripod was still there, lolling in the cool of the late afternoon.
Having already had one escape from poachers, he has no idea how lucky he is to be watched over by the saviours of Kafue.
• For more information visit musekeseconservation.com; zambiatourism.com — The Telegraph