The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir



Nov 16, 2018

Aerial Survey of Kafue National Park Suggests Great Progress in the Fight for Conservation

Conservation, Kafue Style: We're delighted to learn that there has been a huge increase in wildlife numbers in Zambia’s largest national park.


Sarah Kingdom

The Kafue National Park, is Zambia’s oldest and largest national park and one of the continent’s wildest. Wilderness Safaris have just released extracts (the full document is yet to be published) from an aerial population survey they carried out in conjunction with the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DPNW). The survey, conducted ten years after their first aerial survey, reveals a significant increase in wildlife numbers, in different habitat zones in the park. The survey shows promising population growths in a number of species; including red lechwe which have increased in numbers by 487%, puku by 103%, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest by 78%, and blue wildebeest by 113%.

Photo: Mukambi Safaris

Formerly plagued by poaching, it has taken a dedicated commitment, both physically and financially, with assistance from DPNW, local lodges and operators and various NGO’s (World Bank, Norad, WWF etc.) to turn the tide and protect Kafue’s wildlife.

4,000 – 6,000 poachers live in households situated in the Game Management Areas adjacent to the Kafue National Park.

Research by the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) into illegal hunting and the bush meat trade, revealed that an estimated 4,000 – 6,000 poachers live in households situated in the Game Management Areas adjacent to the Kafue National Park. 75% of these poachers use firearms (accessed both legally and illegally), while 13% are using snares. The DNPW have also found that there has been illegal hunting conducted by licensed hunters, who are ‘harvesting’ as much as double their allocated quota.

The Busanga swamps, with their adjacent flood plains, in the far northwest of the park, is probably the best known area of Kafue National Park. Much of this Northern sector is permanently waterlogged, but in the dry season (May to November) the water recedes, leaving vast expanses of lush grazing, irresistible to the array of wildlife found here. The Busanga Plains is definitely a highlight of Kafue National Park, for both its diversity and quantity of game.

Photo: Mukambi Safaris

With the coming of the rains and the flooding of the plains, the camps on the Busanga Plains close, due to limited access and infrastructure. Although several camps have caretakers during this period, there is limited anti-poaching undertaken by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) due both to chronic underfunding and poor accessibility. This has led to widespread poaching, as poachers have been able to operate with little fear of reprisal from law enforcement. In some cases camp caretakers were left powerless, watching poaching activities being carried out right before their eyes.

“Lessons from the past told us that we need better patrols and more information”

Over the last few years Mukambi Safaris,working with Wilderness Safaris, have brought in anti-poaching patrols from the DNPW; providing transport and deployment of the anti- poaching teams and paying for rations and bonuses. They were not sure how effective the patrols were, but what they did know was that although poaching was reducing, it was still going on.

With this in mind the local operators felt it was imperative to protect the area more effectively. “Lessons from the past told us that we need better patrols and more information on the effectiveness of these patrols,” says Edjan van der Heide of Mukambi Lodge. A new approach was devised and a fresh anti- poaching project was born…

Photo: Mukambi Safaris

“the poachers know they cannot escape from a helicopter,”

The ground operators would fund and support a year round DPNW patrol team presence on the Busanga Plains. As the Busanga Plains flood annually, greatly limiting ground access, air surveillance and the deployment of teams by helicopter was needed. The geography of the plains make it ideal for air surveillance, with the open plains offering no hiding places for poachers. A group of ground operators, Mukambi Safaris, Wilderness Safaris, Namib Sky Balloon Safaris and Jamp Safaris, would fund the patrol teams; covering rations, fuel, bonuses and the cost of necessary aerial support (which would be provided at cost price, by Ntengu Safaris, based in the Game Management Area adjacent to the plains). A small two seater spotter plane would do surveillance of the area, and if poachers were spotted, then a helicopter would be dispatched, along with the patrol team, to wherever illegal activities have been seen, reaching the site within about 15min.

So far the results are very promising. “We noticed hardly any poaching activities, since the poachers know they cannot escape from a helicopter,” says Edjan. A number of poachers have been arrested, poaching camps have been destroyed, weapons and other equipment confiscated. Ron Goatley, MD of Wilderness Safaris, says that “this demonstrates our commitment to conservation in Kafue and we are thrilled that the survey’s findings further prove… that we have made a dramatic impact on the reduction of poaching in the region.”

However this aerial surveillance project is not really viable in the long term. Although the operators are happy to contribute to the costs of the project, it ultimately needs to be the responsibility of the DPNW to monitor the park and control poaching. Unless DPNW are given greater access to funding however, it is not certain that they will ever be in a position to do so.

Photo: Mukambi Safaris

The Kafue doesn’t have the huge herds of game yet that can be found elsewhere in Africa, but what the park may lack in animal density it more than makes up for in diversity. There are at least 161 species of mammals, 22 of which are antelope. Kafue boasts the highest antelope diversity of any African park, with everything from the tiny blue duiker to the massive eland, with reedbuck, sable, hartebeest, puku, Defassa waterbuck and many more in between. The Busanga Plains is home to thousands of red lechwe often stretching as far as the eye can see, frequently in the company of herds of roan and buffalo. An incredible 24 ungulate species occur in the park, even more impressive when you consider that some of the best game viewing areas in the Okavango or Hwange only have around 17 or 18 ungulate species. There are six cat species in the park: lion, leopard, cheetah, caracal, serval and African wildcat. Elephant, zebra, hyena, wild dog and warthog can also be added to the mammal list. Kafue National Park is named after the river which bisects it almost north to south. The river is home to fish, otters and hippos, full of sand banks where spur-wing geese saunter, colonies of African skimmers swoop and crocodiles sunbathe.

Mass tourism does not exist here and the bush is still pure and unexplored. Infrastructure is sparse and visitor numbers are low (somewhere in the region of 15,000 to 20,000 per annum) and despite its proximity to both Lusaka and Livingstone, Kafue National Park remains little-known with huge tracts of its bush still pristine. In the north, the Busanga Plains, with an atmosphere of untouched solitude, is a remote and timeless gem, and without a doubt the park and its wildlife are well worth preserving. It is to be hoped that the anti-poaching initiatives instigated by these passionate and dedicated ground operators in the park will continue, and ultimately that the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife will be in a position to assist in an increased way.

Cover photo: Wilderness Safaris

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Athletes & Explorers

Dec 13, 2018

Steph Davis: Dreaming of Flying

What drives Steph, to free solo a mountain with nothing but her hands and feet, before base jumping? “Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear."



The Outdoor Journal

Presented byimage

In the coming days the Outdoor Journal will release an exclusive interview with Steph Davis, follow us via our social networks and stay tuned for more.

Do you have to be fearless to jump off a mountain? Meeting Steph Davis, you quickly realise: no, fearlessness is not what it takes. It’s not the search for thrills that drives her. She’s Mercedes travelled to Moab, Utah to find out what does – and to talk to Steph Davis about what it takes to climb the most challenging peaks and plunge from the highest mountaintops.

Steph Davis, getting ready to jump. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

At noon, when the sun is at its highest point above the deserts of southeastern Utah and when every stone cliff casts a sharp shadow, you get a sense of how harsh this area can be. Despite Utah’s barrenness, Steph loves the orange-gold landscape with its towers and elegantly curved arches of sandstone. But Steph is not here because of the natural spectacle. Here, in this area which is as beautiful as it is inhospitable, she can pursue her greatest passion: free solo climbing and BASE jumping.

Castleton Tower… Look closely. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Today, Steph wants to take us to Castleton Tower. We travel on gravel roads that are hardly recognizable, right into the middle of the desert. Gnarled bushes and conifers grow along what might be the side of the road. Other than that, the surrounding landscape lives up to its name: it is deserted. Steph loves the remoteness of the area. “One of my favourite places is a small octagonal cabin in the desert that I designed and built together with some of my closest friends. It’s not big and doesn’t have many amenities but it has everything you need: a bed, a bathroom, a small kitchenette … and eight windows allowing me to take in nature around me. That’s pretty much all I need.” Steph Davis cherishes the simple things. She has found her place, and she doesn’t let go.

No ropes, no safety net. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Castleton Tower is home turf for Steph. She has climbed the iconic red sandstone tower so many times she’s lost count. The iconic 120-metre obelisk on top of a 300-metre cone is popular among rock climbers as well as with BASE jumpers. Its isolated position makes it a perfect plunging point and it can easily be summited with little equipment – at least for experienced climbers like Steph Davis.

“It would be reckless not to be afraid. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.”

Steph is a free solo climber, which means she relies on her hands and feet only – not on ropes, hooks or harnesses. She loves to free solo, using only what’s absolutely necessary. She squeezes her hands into the tiniest cracks in the stone and her feet find support on the smallest outcroppings, where others would see only a smooth surface. Steph climbs walls that might be 100 metres tall – sometimes rising up 900 metres – with nothing below her but thin air and the ground far below. She knows that any mistake while climbing can be fatal.

Flying. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

The possibility of falling accompanies Steph whenever she climbs. Is she afraid? “Of course – it would be reckless not to be. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.” She has learned to transform it into power, prudence, and strength. “It’s up to us to stay in control.”

“You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”

That’s what, according to her, free soloing and BASE jumping are all about: to be in control and to trust in one’s abilities. “It’s not about showing off how brave I am. It’s about trusting myself to be good enough not to fall. It takes a lot of strength, both physical and mental. You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”

Touchdown. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Steph Davis likes to laugh and she does so a lot. She chooses her words with care, and she doesn’t rush. Why would she? There’s no point in rushing when you’re hanging on a vertical wall, with nothing but your hands and feet. Just like climbing, she prefers to approach things carefully and analytically. That’s how she got as far as she did. “I didn’t grow up as an athlete, and started climbing when I was 18,” she smiles, shrugging. But her work ethic is meticulous and she knows how to improve herself. Whenever she prepares for an ascent, she does so for months, practising each section over and over again – on the wall and in her head – until she has internalised it all. She does the same before a BASE jump and practices the exact moves in her head until she knows the movement is consummate.

Steph loves the orange-gold landscape with its towers and elegantly curved arches of sandstone. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

“Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear.”

Would Steph consider herself brave? She says that she wouldn’t know how to answer that, you can see the small wrinkles around Steph’s eyes that always appear whenever she laughs. In any case, she doesn’t consider herself to be exceptional. “I’m not a heroine just because I jump off mountaintops,” Steph says she has weaknesses just like everyone else. But she might overcome them a little better than most of us do, just as she has learned to work with fear. “Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear. It is brave to accept fear for what it is, as a companion that you should sometimes listen to, but one you shouldn’t be obedient to.”

She slows the car down. We have reached Castleton Tower. It rises majestically in front of us while the sun has left its zenith. If Steph started walking now, she’d reach the top at the moment the sun went down, bathing the surrounding area in a golden light. She takes her shoes and the little parachute; all she needs today. Then she smiles again, says “see you in a bit”, and starts walking. Not fast, not hastily, but without hesitation.

All photos by Jan Vincent Kleine

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