Lions and Carbon: How REDD+ is improving Biodiversity in Zambia

Lions are in rapid decline throughout much of Africa.  According to a recent report by Panthera and WILDAID, lion populations have plunged 43% in the last 20 years.  Today, 20,000 lions (Panthera leo) remain, occupying just 8% of their historical range.  National Geographic reports that the Luangwa to Lower Zambezi ‘complex’ is one of the last ten lion strongholds in Africa.  A ‘stronghold’ is where lions have a long-term chance of survival.  The USAID-funded Community Forests Program (CFP) which BCP implements overlays the same Luangwa to Lower Zambezi geographic area.  The Luangwa ecosystem has an estimated population of 574, and the Lower Zambezi ecosystem contains an estimated 40 lions.

Lion along the Chongwe River in Chiawa GMA. The Chongwe River forms a boundary to Rufunsa Conservancy.

Lion along the Chongwe River in Chiawa GMA. The Chongwe River forms a boundary to Rufunsa Conservancy.

Large herbivores and big cats are particularly affected by escalating human-caused threats such as poaching, exploitation and habitat loss. While there is tremendous pressure on these species to survive, hope does exist. REDD+ is emerging as a tool to support wildlife conservation through protecting forest habitat, wildlife that live within these forests, and community-incentive programs. The Lower Zambezi REDD+ Project (LZRP) implements a set of community livelihood and development activities in return for help protecting Rufunsa Conservancy.  The Conservancy adds 400 square kilometres of improved conservation area in a buffer zone directly adjacent to Lower Zambezi National Park, an area 10% the size of the Park.  This is important as buffer zones to parks can often be “sinks”, not sources of lion.

When the Project started in 2012, we were lucky to see a lone Reedbuck sprinting away from 200 meters.  Throughout 2013, wildlife sightings continued to be sparse; lion had not been reported in scout patrol records in the Conservancy for over a decade; wild dog (Lycaon pictus) had not been reported at all; the last buffalo (Syncerus caffer) had been reported around Mukamba gate about 8 years previously; and the few roan and sable left were sparse, stressed and poached.  All indications pointed to a major near wildlife collapse in the Conservancy.

1In addition to major community investments, the security system was overhauled in the Conservancy.  New scouts were hired, trained and equipped, new vehicles procured, a radio repeater system put in place, and investments made into aerial surveys and a dog detection unit conducted by CLZ and DNPW.  Bush meat poaching still is a problem but in short, a small pride of four lion appear to have found their way back to the Conservancy, and are feeling more and more comfortable and secure there.  Lion roars are heard from the Management Camp regularly, and occasionally lion are seen by the Camp.  These four lion represent around 10% of the Lower Zambezi ecosystem’s overall lion population.

Some may ask, why do four lions matter?  According to a new BioScience article entitled “Saving the World’s Terrestrial Megafauna”, 59% of the world’s largest carnivores and 60% of the world’s largest herbivores are classified as threatened with extinction.  These four lion are important because lions and their prey are in such trouble, and at the start of LZRP, it was rare to see any wildlife at all.  Spectacular sightings continue to increase in the Conservancy including of iconic species like Sable (Hippotragus niger) and Roan (Hippotragus equinus).  In April, 2016 wild dogs, a critically endangered predator, were spotted near the Rufunsa Conservancy entrance gate by DNPW staff for the first time in years.  Six buffalo also moved through an area where they had not been seen in eight years.

To see whether these sightings scientifically reflect if REDD+ helps conservation or not, we teamed up with Lion Landscapes, a Kenyan-based Conservation research organization, to develop a structured community-based wildlife monitoring program in the Conservancy.  Dr. Alayne Cotterill who heads up Lion Landscapes, recently visited the Conservancy and said: “There has been a noticeable difference in wildlife numbers since the REDD+ program started. During my initial visit we saw very little wildlife, and lions were discussed as something to aim for in the future. My last visit saw almost daily signs of lions using the area; I heard them calling 3 nights out of 6, and I even had lion tracks on my tracks walking back into camp one day! It is exciting to see the Conservancy becoming a sanctuary for both lions and their prey.”


This blog is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The content of this blog are the sole responsibility of BCP and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

Introducing Lego and Bar the Newest Additions to Combating Wildlife Crime in the Lower Zambezi

Throughout Africa, illegal trans-national wildlife crime is on the rise.  To counter this growing threat, conservation agencies are introducing detection dog units across African protected areas.  This new ‘technology’ has shown effective results in deterring illegal wildlife crime.

Lower Zambezi National Park is one of Zambia’s most strategic protected areas.  It forms part of a trans-frontier conservation area shared with Zimbabwe and Mozambique, containing one of Zambia’s largest elephant populations.  The Lower Zambezi National Park, surrounding Game Management Areas and Lower Zambezi REDD+ Project’s Rufunsa Conservancy cover approximately 10,000 km2.  Threats to this million hectare area are clear and stark.  The proximity of Lower Zambezi to the capital city means that increasing population combined with illegal activity pressure like poaching, encroachment, and illegal charcoal making threaten both the habitat and wildlife populations.  Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ), in partnership with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and BCP support regular foot patrols and aerial surveys, but this is a vast area, so the question is how to support foot patrols with more tools?

Handlers need to form a strong bond with the dogs

Handlers need to form a strong bond with the dogs

Until now, patrols have relied on the human nose, and physical searches with limited success.  Highly trained detection dogs on the other hand have the relentlessly keen ability to track and follow scents that have long gone cold to humans. These sophisticated canines have the capacity to locate a small piece of ivory or game meat in a densely packed 40ft shipping container with a capacity of 67 cubic metres; making border crossings and routine road block checks far more efficient and leading to an increase in arrests, recoveries, deterrence and information related to wildlife crime and trafficking.

Realizing the importance of a Dog Detection Unit as a tool in combating wildlife crime and poaching in the Lower Zambezi ecosystem, BCP partnered with CLZ to support DNPW in establishing a new dog unit. The establishment and operational costs for the unit are provided through the USAID-funded Community Forests Program (CFP) implemented by BCP (BioCarbon Partners). This sub grant of US$150,000.00 includes a new modified Toyota Land Cruiser that will be used by the dog unit for special operations, making it an entirely independent unit that can randomly deploy across the highways and disrupt wildlife criminal chains.  Funds from this same grant will pay the salaries of the four dog handlers for the first 2 years.

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Lego and Bar’s keen sense of smell help scouts track illegal activities in Lower Zambezi

Lego and Bar are two detection and tracking dogs. These German Shepherds were born and bred in Holland – and arrived in the Lower Zambezi on April 24 along with specialist dog trainers Jay Crafter and Mike Hensman from Invictus K9. Nine potential handlers were assessed over a week for specific qualities – physical fitness, memory, integrity, teamwork, leadership, ability to communicate and function under pressure, and importantly empathy toward animals and their ability build a relationship with Lego and Bar. Two primary handlers were chosen, Sheleni Phiri (a CLZ Village Scout since 2013) and CLZ’s, Peter Tembo, who started with CLZ in 2011 as kitchen/camp assistant and has since risen to Operations Assistant. The secondary handlers are Christopher Sheleni and Adamson Phiri, both formally employed under CLZ’s Village Scout unit. The four on them will have completed an intense and challenging 3 month training period by the end of July 2016, the first step to becoming expert dog handlers.

In addition to Lego and Bar, a 13-week old puppy, named Fury and selected from one of the local villages has been undergoing training to become a tracking and detection dog.  This relatively new and slightly experimental process, time will show if it’s possible to successfully train Fury to perform the same duties Lego and Bar will be fulfilling in the field. Dogs from local villages have a strong immunity against diseases and illness found in Zambia, and are better adapted toward coping with the heat in Zambia. A few weeks in and Fury is already picking up scents!

We are proud to be supporting DNPW and CLZ in the development of this important new tool to reduce wildlife crime in the Lower Zambezi ecosystem.  We look forward to sharing more information about the progress of the Dog Detection Unit in future as the program develops.

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The young puppy, Fury, learns commands

This blog is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The content of this blog are the sole responsibility of BCP and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.