History of North Luangwa
Before the mid-1980s
Without the conservation efforts and funds that were devoted to South Luangwa, the country's premier game park, the North Luangwa National Park has until recently been a 'poor relation'. Poachers hunting rhino and elephant met less resistance there, and local people crossed its boundaries freely in search of food. The impact on the game was inevitable.
North Luangwa remained a wilderness area for many years, officially accessible only to the Game Department, until 1984 when Major John Harvey and his wife Lorna (daughter of Sir Stewart Gore-Browne, of Shiwa Ng'andu) started to run walking safaris here. They were the first safari operators here and their son, Mark Harvey, runs one of the three camps currently in the North Park (Buffalo Camp).
The Owens' ideal
In 1986 a couple of American zoologists – Mark and Delia Owens – visited the park in search of an African wilderness in which to base their animal research, and returned in October '87 to base themselves here. They came from a project in Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve, with an uncompromising reputation for defending the wildlife against powerful vested interests. They also had behind them an international best-selling book about their experiences – The Cry of the Kalahari. This had brought conservation issues in Botswana to a popular audience, which earned them considerable financial backing for high-profile conservation efforts, including the vital support of the Frankfurt Zoological Society.
Their presence here was to have a profound impact upon the park. In the early 1980s, elephant poaching was estimated at about 1,000 animals per year. Their second best-seller, the highly readable Survivor's Song (called The Eye of the Elephant in the US, see Further Reading), relates their struggles to protect this park from the poachers, and their efforts to find alternatives for the local people so that they would support the anti-poaching work.
Read it before you arrive, but don't be alarmed: the place is much safer now. Also be aware that their book has been written to sell. It's an exciting yarn, but does describe events as if they were a personal campaign. It doesn't mention any real contribution to education, development or anti-poaching from anyone apart from Mark and Delia. Others involved with the park have long maintained that this was not a true picture, and that the Owens' book simply ignored the 'bigger picture' of all the efforts which were going on at the time. Whatever the truth, it's worth reading.
With the dedication of the Owens, and the vital financial assistance that they could attract, poaching has been virtually eliminated. The park's game scouts were paid well and properly housed, and became the most zealous and effective in the country. Local education and development programmes were initiated in villages around the park, aiming to raise awareness of conservation and to provide alternatives for people who relied upon poaching for food.
However, Mark and Delia left Zambia in a hurry in 1996. This followed an alleged incident in which forceful anti-poaching actions went too far. It was precipitated by a documentary screened in the US by the ABC television network, Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story, in which an alleged poacher appeared to be executed. Mark and Delia have never returned to Zambia.
Perhaps the real, lasting legacy of Mark and Delia is that they introduced the Frankfurt Zoological Society to North Luangwa. The FZS's constant financial support over the last 18 years has done an amazing amount to safeguard this terrific park. Thanks to them, and other important donors, the privately financed North Luangwa Conservation Project continues to support the park and its authorities.
The NLCP's input has concentrated on support for the law enforcement effort, through training and the supply of essential field equipment, rations, vehicles and the building of houses for the field staff. Thus the park's scouts continue to be keen, well-trained and well-motivated. They also help to conduct regular aerial surveys for large mammals, the records of which stretching all the way back to the late 1980s, and to maintain and gradually expand the road network – as well as other aspects of the park's management and conservation.
Various community programmes continue to support the communities around the park. These vary from a conservation education programme, with material that are specific to this area, to work on land use plans – to get the nearby communities to think critically about their future and how they can generating income, whilst safeguarding some of their natural resources for the future. The rhino
Meanwhile, the game goes from strength to strength. In 2003 black rhino were re-introduced into the park. These are now probably the only black rhino in the country; their presence is a strong sign of how secure the North Luangwa is, and that the park expects to enjoy the long-term support of the FZS.
Five black rhino were introduced into a large fenced-off intensive protection zone, at the heart of the park. It is envisaged that these five will be joined by others soon, and it's hoped that eventually the fences can be taken down. At time of press, negotiations were going on to bring more in, and to enlarge the enclosure in which they are currently kept. (Intriguingly, the self-drive route through the park might pass though any enlarged enclosure!)
The future for North Luangwa seems a bright one – and perhaps Zambia's positive experience of having a national park run with the strong support of a donor-funded private organisation has helped it to look to the future in places like Liuwa Plain, where analogous project is just beginning.