Our conservation efforts in Zambia and Rwanda


Kate MacWilliam


During October we hosted two Travel with Purpose trips, one to Akagera National Park in Rwanda and the other to the Busanga Plains in Zambia’s Kafue National Park. Both trips involved behind-the-scenes conservation work usually only afforded to a small group of wildlife professionals. On both trips guests had the opportunity to take part in a game capture experience – a life-changing opportunity to support conservation efforts – on a thrilling six-day adventure.





Wilderness Chief Marketing Officer Chris Roche, hosted the trip to Kafue, along with a team of wildlife experts: Ben Goodheart from the Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP); Dr Kambwiri Banda, field-based vet for the ZCP; and Arnold Tshipa, Wilderness Zambezi Environmental Manager. The group was joined by four guests and guided by legendary Busanga guide, Isaac Kalio.



Speaking to Chris about the area, his first words are, “What can’t you see here?” The 80 000 hectare (200 000 acre) Busanga Plains invites a variety of experiences by vehicle, boat and even hot-air balloon”. And, as Chris says, it is one of the most interesting and important areas where we operate. In the 11 years since our operation in the area began, we have seen a dramatic increase in both herbivore and predator numbers, a testament to our conservation presence in the area. Our camps, Shumba and Busanga, have also played a vital role in creating livelihoods for Zambians living in and around the park.





“On the plains, 10 years ago, you didn’t see elephant. If you did, it was only a single bull at night. On this trip we saw 80 elephants as we arrived – sightings like that were just unheard of 10 years ago. This is a direct result of our presence in the area. This is why it is so important to support this area”. – Chris Roche



The focus of this specific Travel with Purpose trip was to collar a lion and participate in a road count survey of large mammals on the Busanga Plains. The advantage of this exclusive and intimate experience also meant being able to engage with experts and authorities on a one-on-one basis.



Chris explained the importance of the lion study in the area and why the collars are so necessary for keeping this population safe. “When you remove a prime breeding female from a population, you significantly impact the ability of that population to thrive. That’s what happened in the area with a pride called the Busanga Pride. Two of the females of the pride were killed, one by a snare, and the pride numbers began to dwindle. The numbers dropped from fifteen to twelve, to eventually only two males and a female, and soon the entire pride had been wiped out. We now have a new pride that’s moved into the area and we can’t afford to have the same thing happen.





“The ZCP have already removed two snares from pride members. A huge part of what we are doing in terms of the collaring is not just about ecological understanding, but is also directly related to desnaring too. Wild dogs, for example, are very susceptible to snares due to the vast distances they cover and speed at which they move, and it is difficult to follow them. Putting collars on vulnerable species therefore helps the vet to respond and in this way keep the population healthy”.


The group spent the first few days watching wildlife and getting to grips with what the lions were doing. Time is needed to find out which animal will be collared and which collars will be replaced. A lot of this information is known in advance but there can be problems on the ground. Difficulties such as thick bush, mating lions or a female with cubs are just some potential problems that may arise.





On the third day of the trip, and after two days of forfeiting the hot air-balloon experience in favour of searching for lions, the group got lucky with what they thought would be a terrific collaring experience right in front of Shumba Camp! The lions were all together in an open clearing and everything looked like it was going to plan. That is until a herd of 400 buffalo moved into the area, heading straight to the camp… They chased the lions away, and, at one point, the buffalo and lion were almost side by side which made it impossible to dart the lions. 




The buffalo had derailed the plan which meant that time was running out…



That night everyone enjoyed a talk by Ben on the purpose of the ZCP projects before gearing up for the next day’s mission.



The next morning Maggie, one of the lionesses, and her male cub were located. Queen, Maggie’s mother, and the currently collared female, was also seen walking through the water.



“This is something else that I love about Busanga. While this is not a good quality image, it’s incredible to have the opportunity to see lions wading through water or jumping over a channel like this”. – Chris Roche



If you compare the two images, you can see the body condition of Maggie on the right, who is only five or six years old, relative to her mother on the left, who has lost condition with age.


At this point the researchers and vet were called in to begin the darting. Ben explained the process and chatted about the collars, the dart gun and drugs being used. Chris explained that in a situation like this you don’t want the animal to associate multiple vehicles with a stressful event like collaring. The research and guest vehicle therefore hung back while the vet began the daring procedure. During this time Maggie’s cub moved into the palm thickets roughly 20 metres away. After Maggie had been darted, the vehicles parked in a way that would shield the cub from seeing its mother (so as not to create additional stress).



Mission nearly complete… The crew quickly got to work, fitting the collar, taking blood samples, and recording the breathing rate and temperature while also pouring water over her to keep her cool. The guests got involved with measuring the canines, body width, shoulder height and body length.



Mission finally completed… Dr Banda followed up by administering the reversal drug and the cub came out to see what his mother was up to. She soon woke up, looking a little groggy but not at all concerned about the new collar. As Chris says, “One of the first questions many people ask is if the collar will upset or hurt the lion in anyway. This is why it’s important for someone to hold and feel the collar. It is much like us wearing a necklace. The collar weighs about 2% of their body weight and has minimal impact”.




After this Maggie re-joined her cub and moved to the shade – looking a little like someone with a Sunday morning hangover! Back at camp, Isaac began sharing stories of the lions and talked about their individual personalities and the fascinating dynamics between the lions on the Plains. That afternoon Maggie joined up with both of her cubs and the very next day was seen mating. As they say, life goes on!



Celebrating the end of a successful trip with a hot air-balloon ride and champagne breakfast!


Countries where we have ‘Travel With Purpose’ trips planned for 2019




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