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Survey expansion into Shikabeta REDD+ Zone, Luano Valley, Zambia

Join Lion Landscapes' Field Ecologist Nicola Carruthers on her trip into Luano Valley, Zambia.

The Luano Valley is not often said to be a wildlife area one must visit, due to rugged terrain and low density of wildlife, yet the existence of the Luano Game Management Area (GMA) has ensured that, at the very least, the habitat has remained intact. As has the tsetse population. The scenery when driving down the escarpment into the valley is breath-taking: dramatic hills rolling into one another on the horizon in a wide pallet of dusty blues, foliage in shades of greens, yellows, oranges, reds and browns, forests of huge Euphorbias twice as tall as my car and the Luensemfwa River in the distance weaving its way through the landscape like an emerald snake. I thought the childhood stories from my father had prepared me for the beauty of the landscape, but evidently not.

Huge Euphorbia forest in the Luano Valley
Luensemfwa River weaving its way through the landscape like an emerald snake
Foliage in shades of greens, yellows, oranges, reds and browns

With six years of patient and nurturing attention from the Norton Family of Makasa Safaris, the support from the Shikabeta Chiefdom and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), the Lower Luano hunting concession has rebounded with incredible results. The success of the current conservation strategies, combined with the geographical location, are clear as day. That was one reason the Lower Luano Shikabeta REDD+ zone was selected as Lion Landscapes Zambia’s first expansion of biodiversity monitoring activities into a GMA with our partners, BioCarbon Partners (BCP) and DNPW.

Herds of up to what looked like a hundred impala stood by the road, nonplussed, as my noisy Cruiser rumbled past. We must have seen at least 400 impala just on the drive into Chomba Camp. Groups of kudu casually browsed, pausing only to watch the vehicle pass; bushbuck, warthog and baboon were equally calm. This is not what one expects when entering an area described as “depleted” and “starting to recover from a scourge of poaching”.

Not once in my life, all in Africa, have I been to the bush and heard lion calling every single day for ten days straight. This was the exception in my 30-year experience. For ten consecutive days, at various times of day, there were lions calling: not always a single lion, not always from a single location and not always in isolation. On one occasion there were lions calling from three separate locations, with at least two individuals in two of those locations.

In addition to these observations, we know from collar data shared by Zambian Carnivore Programme that wild dogs are starting to come back, even if only dispersal groups that stay a short while before moving on. The record-breaking trip of a collared wild dog from around South Luangwa National park into Mozambique and back into Zambia shows the individual spent some time along the Luensemfwa River that bounds the Lower Luano hunting concession and Shikabeta REDD+ Zone.

After two days of initial training, the five teams made up of Makasa-supported Community Scouts, BCP personnel, interns, one DNPW Wildlife Police Officer, the area DNPW Ecologist, and BCP-supported Community Scouts started the gruelling task of sampling approximately 530km2.

Teams leave the basecamp early in the morning in order to reach the start point of their first transect by 7am sharp, and only get back to the basecamp after dark and usually after a long walk in bad light (in which a torch helps very little). We rotate “easier” days with “harder” days to keep up morale and ensure data quality remains as high as possible with rested minds and bodies; our most important assets are the scouts, not the devices they use.

Our most important assets, the hard-working survey team members

For the first survey, I was not expecting any live sightings of large carnivores. I was wrong to have had such low expectations for there were several sightings both on and off transects, with numerous fresh tracks recorded. Fewer tracks were recorded overall than had been expected, which we assume is due to the dominant terrain: pebbled hills with very few sandy patches.

Pebbled hills make wildlife tracks invisible

The teams moved to a new camp for the final day of sampling to reduce drive times in the morning and evening. From there, the teams went back to their usual stations of operation – from Mfuwe to Chirundu and almost everywhere between. We are now looking at doing the less fun work – writing reports – but having the memories of such a smooth survey with supportive partners makes it less painful. We look forward to seeing the trends emerge from this interesting area in the next few years.

Stunning scenery of Shikabeta REDD+ Zone in Lower Luano hunting concession, Luano Valley, Zambia

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