Post submitted by Lise Hanssen, Project Coordinator of Kwando Carnivore Project
If there was checklist for setting up a lion conflict mitigation project in rural Namibia (or anywhere else I would imagine), first on the list would be engaging with the affected community. In the case of the Chobe floodplains, this means seven conservancies with names ranging from the straightforward (Kasika) to downright tongue twisters. Try Nakabolelwa (pronounced Nakaa-vo-lel-wah) and Kabulabula (Kaa-vula-vula).
During March, clutching our passports, James Maiba (pronounced Mah-ee-vah), our collaborator from IRDNC, Hans Fwelimbi, who coordinates our mitigation efforts along the Kwando River in the Mudumu Complexes and myself set about meeting the conservancies in what I now call the four corners. This is where Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana all meet.
During the dry season, the Chobe River, a tributary of the mighty Zambezi is only a puddle and trickle. When the floodwaters of the Zambezi push back during the wet season, the Chobe becomes a vast inland sea, flooding access roads to the eastern tip of Namibia. Bizarrely, the Chobe can flow in either direction, depending on where the rain has fallen. The flooded Zambezi and Chobe cut off all road access to the four corners from Namibia.
Two trips to the four corners involved crossing into Botswana, driving through the Chobe National Park and then crossing back into Namibia by catching a water taxi from the Kasane boat station. Each entrance and exit required immigration forms to be filled in and passports to be stamped. “Welcome to Zimbabwe” pinged my cellphone while I waited in line at Kasane immigration on the Botswana side.
Our water taxi, shaped like an aluminum banana, was shared with bags of maize meal, poles, jerry cans of fuel for the boat engine and other Namibians returning home after grocery shopping in Botswana. The Chobe is like a water highway, two kilometres wide in some places. No one batted an eyelid as we jetted past elephants playing in the water and thousands of buffalo grazing on the banks. Fantastic wildlife that attracts thousands of tourists every year are part of everyday life for Chobe residents.
Each conservancy becomes an island during the wet season as rising floods isolate them from each other. There are no vehicles here for obvious reasons requiring us to walk a number of kilometres from the river (I am wearing the long traditional shetenge in 100-degree heat) to the sub-Khuta building where we meet with the Kasika Conservancy. A Khuta is the Traditional Authority, which we refer to as the TA. The TA is headed by a Chief and Indunas (Elders) that represent their communities. There are four Chiefs in the east Zambezi Region and being introduced at the Khuta can be very intimidating. Luckily we were just using the building on that particular occasion.
Hans and I were introduced by James where we explained the plight of lions, our successes in mitigating lion conflict along the Kwando and the support that we have received from National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative for the eastern floodplains. I was the only person who required translation. Although Hans speaks Shiyeyi and the community speaks Subiya, everyone in the Zambezi Region speaks siLozi, the lingua franca of the region.
Our meeting with Kabulabula Conservancy took place on the banks of the river with only a handful of people who profusely apologized for their small numbers. The others had had to urgently take their cattle to high ground away from the rising flood waters. After travelling for four hours by car, crossing two international borders and travelling for an hour and a half by boat, out meeting was over in twenty minutes. Definitely the shortest community meeting on record. The people were so welcoming and happy to see us and hear all about the new BCI funded project, that they refused to jinx it by asking any questions. They were looking forward to seeing us again when the flood waters ebbed. I am still not sure whether we will use a truck or boat to transport the material to build lion-proof kraals, but for now the floods mean that the lions will stay firmly put in Botswana, giving us time to figure this out.
After those two trips, Hans and I had thirty-two stamps in our passports between us. Hans had four more than me, but only because he boated back to the Botswana side to collect the cool drinks for the meeting that we had forgotten in the car. Note to self – to be added to the Chobe lion conflict project checklist – ensure there are sufficient blank pages in our passports. It seems that we will also need a whole new set of skills to conserve lions in the eastern floodplains – how to get on and off a banana boat without falling overboard.
Arriving back in Namibia after crossing the Chobe by vehicle this time, my cellphone pinged, “Welcome to Zambia”.