"The rhinos have brought a focus on North Luangwa"

Project leader Ed Sayer speaks about challenges of the rhino reintroduction and the future of the FZS North Luangwa Conservation Programme.

Ed Sayer in North Luangwa National Park. Photo: Norbert Guthier
Project leader Ed Sayer in North Luangwa NP.

Rhinos are under pressure for many reasons and have already once suffered local extinction in Zambia. Can North Luangwa National Park support a healthy black rhino population?
Yes. There is no doubt there are challenges, though. The Zambian black rhino population was poached to extinction in the 1980s and a lot of suitable habitat has been lost over the last century. However, Zambia still has significant land under protection of which the North Luangwa ecosystem is a relatively pristine 22,000 km2, with the National Park at its heart. The current rhino population is intensely protected. We support the national authorities and the local communities to put in effective law enforcement and I believe that if we can win the battle against the current severe poaching threat, then this population will become very significant.

What does it take to protect rhinos from poachers?
A massive effort and the risk of failure is ever present. We focus on two things: long-term engagement and partnership. All the stakeholders – the national authorities, the local communities and ourselves – need to have in place a long-term strategy that establishes a safe haven for rhinos. This safety can only be assured if we work closely together. Success takes dedication, motivation, discipline and trust from the daily task of boots on the ground right up to real commitment from the most senior government authority.

Do you feel there is support for the programme from the local communities?
Yes, we do. The communities have been involved in the process from the start and the rhinos have created jobs for new scouts and other programme staff. The rhinos act as a flagship for the North Luangwa ecosystem and are a focus for raising funds and attention from donors and the Zambian government, be that road maintenance, or rural electrification. The more our partnership with the national authorities achieves, the more support we attract both for wildlife conservation and for the North Luangwa communities.

Is there conflict?
There is no conflict between rhinos and local communities. However, there is always a more general rift between humans and wildlife which we believe could be addressed through a range of strategies such as participatory land use planning, equitable sharing of revenues from wildlife, supporting adherence to national and customary laws, and engendering community ownership. In terms of ivory or rhino horn poaching, we need to appreciate that as long as there is lack of employment opportunities and general rural poverty, there are always going to be criminal syndicates tempting local community members to facilitate or to undertake the poaching of high value species.

Ed Sayer, Project Leader North Luangwa Conservation Project In a perfect world the black rhino population is free from the poaching threat and growing. Ed Sayer, Project Leader North Luangwa Conservation Project

How is the North Luangwa rhino population doing today?

They are doing well. We have had a very good number of calves born, but a few rhinos have died naturally, from a variety of causes such as old age, fighting and disease. All part of the challenges facing such an ambitious reintroduction project. Our monitoring system aims to sight each animal at least twice a month to maximise the chances of picking up signs of any problems.

Gallery: North Luangwa National Park

Are you planning to introduce more rhinos?
All of the rhinos we have brought in originated from South Africa. It would be great if we could add a bit of diversity to the current gene pool. The closest living relatives to the original Luangwa Valley black rhinos are the Zimbabwean Zambezi Valley animals. The introduction of a small number of these animals to the North Luangwa population would be a great boost.

In a perfect world, where do you see the programme in ten years?
In a perfect world the black rhino population is free from the poaching threat and growing. Plans could be put in place to establish black rhino populations in the bordering Game Management Areas where community ownership needs to be increased and revenue benefit sharing improved so that communities value their wildlife but can also live within the limits of the ecosystem. We see a secure and increasing elephant population. But all this needs to happen under a comanagement framework consisting of national authorities, community stakeholders and us – with full revenue retention and decentralised decision-making.

What challenges need to be addressed?
There are many challenges but I think primarily we need to focus on tackling the organised criminal syndicates targeting the elephant and rhino populations – they need to be identified, arrested and prosecuted. Concurrently, the national policy should enable the breaking up the current Game Management Areas concessions into mixeduse village level concessions, for example photographic tourism, safari hunting, game ranching and forestry management. With community ownership there will be the potential to encourage investors and commercial development, which will create jobs and sustainable revenue.