Thursday, November 01, 2007

Where the water meets the sky...I.P.A.Manning

Watwa c. 1914 J.E. Hughes.

"Men were hunting, and we passed near large herds of antelopes, which made a rushing plunging sound as they ran and sprang away among the waters. A lion had wandered into this world of water and anthill, and roared night and morning, as if very much disgusted: we could sympathize with him."

So wrote David Livingstone on 7 April, 1873, as he made his way by canoe and donkey through the flooded land of eastern Bangweulu from the Munikazi river towards the Lulimala river and his last resting place near Headman Chitambo's village. On the 27 April, he wrote: 'Knocked up quite, and remain - recover - sent to buy milch goats. We are on the banks of the Molilamo.' In the early hours of 1 May, he was dead.

The Bangweulu is one of the most ancient land surfaces in the world: a vast flat basin with a total area of approximately 10,000 square miles. In the north-western corner of this basin are the open lakes which slowly give way in the east to deep permanent swamp, and then gradually grow shallower until the estuaries of the principal rivers and their fringing floodplains are reached on its periphery. There are seventeen major rivers which flow into the basin, and only one river, the Luapula, which drains it in the south. Evaporative water loss and this single drainage point is not sufficient to either maintain or decrease the water level permanently and this has given rise to a seasonal fluctuation to which all animal life is adapted. In the rainy season (November to April) the water pushes out onto the floodplains as far as the fringing woodland, driving much life before it, only to begin its retreat in April to the great drainage line of the Chambeshi which cleaves the centre of the basin from the north-east and which eventually becomes the Luapula. In the south-east of this basin lie the principal breeding grounds of the black lechwe - the meadows which are allied with the estuaries of the Luitikila, Lumbatwa, Lukulu and Lulimala rivers.

Until the Great War, the black lechwe numbered in their hundreds of thousands. In 1957, the ecologist , Desmond Vesey-Fitzgerald wrote that during a tour in 1939, that he was: 'amazed at the number of lechwe seen; all along the boat channel in an almost unbroken line.' In 1966, the Game Department conducted an aerial survey and could only account for 4,000 animals, for they had somehow missed out a large part of the population. This miscount resulted in the animal being listed by the World Conservation Union in its Red Data Book of endangered and vulnerable species, and with the support of Anglo-American Corporation – persuaded by a senior executive, David Gleason, the Black Lechwe Project was initiated so as, 1) to protect the lechwe, 2) to report on their ecology, and 3) to allow the local community to benefit from their sustained use once their population had recovered.

At the start of this project under Jeremy Grimsdell in 1969 – later joined by Richard Bell, there were 17,000 lechwe. In May of 1973, as phase 1 of the programme was coming to an end and lechwe numbers had already increased rapidly, I was instructed by Frank Ansell to take charge of the new Bangweulu Command and to put in place phase II of the programme, this being management, law enforcement, and ecological monitoring. At the end of 1973, I took over the research project from Richard and Jeremy, who had by then completed an excellent study of the black lechwe, and worked on the lechwe’s dual lekking system, and on the ecology of the sitatunga. In 1975, Peter Moss and I carried out an aerial survey and arrived at a population figure a little short of 40,000.

The greatest concentration of large mammals in Bangweulu occur in the estuaries of the south-east, the most numerous species being the black lechwe, sitatunga and Bangweulu tssesebe, with buffalo, reedbuck, oribi, elephant and leopard well represented, though lion were by 1975 much reduced. It is the flooding regime, coupled with the grazing action of these animals, and that of a caterpillar which appears seasonally, which produces a mat of leafy grass, high in protein, allowing for seasonal densities of 2,000 lechwe per square mile.

The sight of one of these water meadows early in the new year is unforgettable: a brief glimpse perhaps of the pleistocene plenitude that was, of nature relatively untouched, going about its slow purposeful way in a world where there is no time, only the gradual change of seasons.

During the March/April period, the level of the water on the water meadow rises, signalling the end of the lechwe rut, and forcing the herds back into the peripheral woodland -fortunately for no more than two or three months, for the grasses there are of low nutritive value and the lechwe quickly lose condition. By the end of May the waters recede and the lechwe segregate into male and female groups. The latter then begin their annual trek some thirty miles to the north to the line of the Chambeshi river. With them go the fishermen, who now make their temporary camps on the swamp islands, and the elephant and the buffalo and many of the birds such as spurwing geese and fulvous tree duck and knob nose which gather in dark glittering mobs to feed on wild rice. A month or two later most of the female lechwe have gone, then the males leave en masse - bar a number who remain all year, and follow the same route as the females. In September/October, the females drop their calves, and the males, in anticipation of the first rains in November, start their journey back to the water meadows, and then lingering a month or two, the females and calves follow.

Within the immediate vicinity of the lechwe live numbers of people - in 1974 they numbered 20, 000, of which two of the three tribes, the Unga and the Bisa, came from the west in the 17th Century and found the Twa already resident in the swamps, living on game, fish and the roots of papyrus and water lilies. Today these tribes are much intermarried though some settlements are still largely composed of the Twa, an independent and shy people who for long have shown little allegiance to authority, be it the early trading concessionaires, the British Administration or their own government. Life to them is one long unremitting struggle, even in so rich a paradise.

The Black Lechwe Project had to grapple with a future in which the destinies of people and lechwe should ideally remain forever entwined. The project land use proposals noted that the peripheral areas of floodplain outside of the Black lechwe range had considerable agricultural potential, and that in the lechwe range, some limited tourism, safari hunting and cropping of lechwe could be carried out – the latter only once populations had reached higher numbers, some 160, 000 being the number suggested, given the human demographics. For a maximum sustained yield to be achieved, Jeremy and Richard maintained that cropping would be at half the level of the population at carrying capacity i.e. 80,000, and that this would allow for a 15% annual increase i.e. about 11,000 lechwe a year, producing 400 metric tons of dressed carcass. These they suggested should be handed out in the form of licenses to village residents. They suggested that if the annual increase was about 10% it would take 18 years to reach the necessary level. It is now 34 years later. What, I wonder, is the population now?
For the floodplain areas they suggested that the GMAs: Bangweulu, Kafinda, Chambeshi and the then proposed Kalasa Mukosa flats, should remain, and a specified area within the present Bangweulu and Kafinds GMA be protected from settlement and development. This in essence became the Chikuni GMA. They also suggested as a secondary choice, the creation of a National Park within the Chikuni GMA, which would take in Chimbwe plain and Chafye island, essentially the Lukulu estuary and its drainage line out to Chafye island, the edge of the deep swamp. The Black Lechwe Project was closed on my departure in February of 1976; and the people still have no legal access or authority over the resources on their ancient lands.

On 28 December 1991, The RAMSAR Convention on Wetlands came into force for Zambia, with eight sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance, one of them being called the Bangweulu swamps, now including all the three National Parks (Kasanka, Lavusi Manda and Isangano) and their attendant GMAs, with a surface area of 15, 561 sq. miles.
But the fact that it is now a RAMSAR site may not be sufficient to save it from the hydro-electric producers of the future who may wish to re-visit plans to impound the Luapula and create a vast shallow lake ensuring the demise of the lechwe and its significant fishery. Zambia should avoid the tragedy such as has befallen the Kafue flats, once the elysian fields.

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