Saving Wildlife – The Outdoor Journal

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The sun sinks low in the sky, slipping towards the horizon, and turning the sky from blue to shades of pale pink and orange. We’ve spent the afternoon on the Zambezi River fishing, or in my case watching while my husband fished!

As we drift downstream we catch sight of an elephant, a lone young male, using his agile trunk to grasp clumps of grass and leaves to eat as he slowly ambles along the bank. We drift, almost beside him, for a couple of kilometres, before he climbs the steep bank and disappears from sight. My husband resumes fishing. I resume watching him, well actually watching the river banks, where there is always something to see. Groups of women gather to wash the family’s laundry in the river, while small children wash and play in the shallows. Men gather to relax, chat and doubtless, discuss the merits of various fishing sites and methods.  We drift past islands, big and small, spotting an impressive male kudu on one, with his huge corkscrew curled horns. Impala gaze down on us from the high banks as a pied kingfisher dives over and over into the water. As we glide on we see something moving along the bank and go in for a closer look. It is a magnificent male leopard, who, apparently indifferent to our presence, saunters along the sand, stopping briefly for a drink before carrying on. We watch till he disappears from sight, and then return to fishing and ‘river bank watching’. My husband begs for “just one more cast”, and then his afternoon got even better as he suddenly hooks a tiger fish. After a brief tousle the fish is landed, and the grin on my husband’s face sums up both our feelings about the entire afternoon.

Photo by Patrick Bentley

We were staying at Mukalya, a private, family-owned private game reserve on the banks of the Zambezi, a few kilometres downstream of the Kariba Gorge and a mere two and half hour drive south of Lusaka. Mukalya is a family affair, in every sense of the word. In 2006 on a canoe trip down from the Kariba Dam wall, the family fell in love with the area and decided to purchase property here and develop it as a private weekend retreat. As they spent more and more time here, the family learnt of the area’s history, the local tribes’ traditional beliefs and about the once prolific wildlife. They observed that poaching and deforestation were threatening the biodiversity of the area and were inspired to do something about it. The family had a vision of reintroducing wildlife, protecting the forests and restoring the area to its former glory. 

Once they had securely fenced the reserve they began to reintroduce wildlife. To date, they have reintroduced over 13 different animal species (including sable, eland, tsessebe, giraffe and zebra). All this, despite an array of obstacles. Animals died during transportation. Others failing to thrive and adjust to their new environment. A drought necessitated bringing in additional feed. Elephants and hippos regularly broke fences and caused costly repairs. Not to mention a pride of lions who swam across the river from the Zimbabwean Hurungwe Game Management Area and consumed several of their newly introduced and rather expensively procured animals!

Photo by Patrick Bentley

Initially, there were also challenges with the local community, including poaching, conflicts over land boundaries, and the widespread cutting down of trees. At the same time as reintroducing wildlife, the family began re-educating the local villagers about the importance and value of wildlife and the benefits of protecting it for future generations. Their hard work paid off, and now the local community are reaping the benefits in the shape of much-needed employment, as well as social projects that include community schools, clinics, solar lighting, agricultural inputs for local farmers, digging of wells and installation of water pumps. 

The family have worked hand in hand with the Zambian Wildlife Authority to reduce poaching, and have not lost a single animal to poaching in the last six years. Indeed, in the occasional case of any animal escaping the reserve, the local villagers always inform the family, and play an active role in returning the escapee back ‘home’.   

Having invested heavily in the conservation and development of the area the family recently decided to open Mukalya lodge to the public, which is how we now had the opportunity to come to this special place.

The previous afternoon we had also been out on the boat, this time heading upstream. 3km from the lodge we entered the Kariba Gorge. The river here had carved through the basalt rock, leaving behind dramatic cliffs and a deep gorge. As we entered the gorge the river narrowed, and the water swished and swirled, like a pot coming to the boil on the stove.  The gorge’s steep sides are covered in dense vegetation, and we pass the occasional sandy beach and a seasonal waterfall. There is an abundance of fish eagles and we can barely go 100m without spying yet another one, perched in a tree above the turbulent waters, or settled on the ground devouring a meal. In the shadows of the gorge, we see two, rufous plumaged, Pel’s fishing owls, and we are thrilled to spot these usually elusive birds. 

We are heading upstream to the Kariba Dam wall, but first, around the next bend, we pass the famous, or perhaps infamous, Nyami Nyami Rock, local legend has it that this island is actually the Zambezi River God, Nyami Nyami, trapped forever below the dam wall, while his wife is apparently remains trapped in the dam above; separated by the wall we are heading to see. Traditionally, superstitious fishermen wouldn’t pass the rock, and would never fish upstream of it, but time has move on and we did in fact see a couple of dugout canoes and local fishermen, alone or in pairs, as we headed towards the dam wall. The closer we got to the wall the more the water seethed and swirled, rushing over rocks and creating hundreds of tiny whirlpools. Then, suddenly, ahead of us, rising out of the water, was the Kariba Dam, apparently the largest dam in the world for storage capacity. I had never seen it from this perspective and it loomed high above us. We sat in the boat, engine idling, and looked up at the massive wall, holding back 185 billion cubic metres of water. 

Turning for ‘home’, we sped over the water, going with the current now, as the shadows in the gorge grew darker. We got back to the lodge and ended the day in a perfect way… unwinding in a glass fronted sauna, overlooking the river and watching the water flow past as dusk darkened over the landscape. A post sauna whisky and delicious dinner rounded off the day perfectly. 

Photo by Patrick Bentley

The following morning we felt it was time to get our legs walking again, and so headed off, on a 12km round trip, to some local hot springs. We walked through the reserve, spotting kudu, duiker, sable and waterbuck. A golden oriole flew overhead, as we stepped over the straight, fat tracks of a python in the sand. We stopped to examine some of the smaller critters en route, including the creepy, omnivorous and sometimes cannibalistic harvester crickets, numerous spider hunting wasps and swarms of noisy burrowing wasps (who paralyse their prey, burying it live with their eggs, to provide ‘fresh’ food for when their young hatch). Leaving the reserve behind, we walked through local villages, waving at local herdsmen, greeting school children and stopping to have a chat with the friendly village headman, before reaching the hot springs. At 90, the water was much too hot to touch as it came out of the ground. Apparently, local ladies bring their pumpkins here to cook in the hot water, while they are busy farming in the fields. Further from the source, in a shaded clearing, the water was cooler and our guide informed us that bathing here, with the natural salts, sulphur and other minerals, had various and numerous health benefits. We didn’t stop to swim though. Brunch was calling, and our tummies were rumbling after our morning stroll.  

Brunch was another scrumptious affair, and after our morning exertions, we felt we had earned it! Zebra looked on, while we sat and chatted with the family and an old family friend, who’d once lived on and owned the land where the lodge now stood. Uncle Josh regaled us with tales of the past, of the huge trees that had grown here, and the wild animals that had roamed the area, before poaching and human encroachment had made a dent in the environment. On the opposite bank lay Zimbabwe’s Hurungwe Safari Area in Zimbabwe, and we heard about the pride of lions who had swum across the river, taking up temporary residence inside Mukalya’s fence, and snacking on a number of the animals, that had been reintroduced into the reserve at some considerable cost and effort! Sitting, full tummies and coffee in hand, we talked about the future plans for Mukalya; the expansion of the reserve, the reintroduction of even more animals, future community projects and more. We couldn’t help but be inspired by the passion and commitment that had gone into the development of Mukalya and could see that its future would be a bright one, and we will definitely be back to check on progress. 

Mukalya Private Game Reserve 

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