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There are essentially two seasons in Zambia: the season of abundance and the season of stress. In the rainy season, the landscape turns lush, the Zambezi and Luangwa rivers fill their floodplains, and hippos, elephants, giraffes, lions, leopards, hyenas, crocodiles, and zebras thrive. During the rest of the year, the river channels are reduced to trickles and the landscape becomes parched, hot, and dusty, sending animals into the bush in search of forage.
The same cycle repeats for Zambia’s rural population, which means that when food is scarce, many turn to subsistence hunting and poaching for meat to eat, sell, or trade. Many Zambians do not have stable food supplies, and trade illegally-hunted bushmeat for food produced by more successful farmers, or cut down trees to produce marketable charcoal. Zambia is striving to achieve a solution that balances human and wildlife needs by developing sustainable ecotourism and cultivating organic niche crops. But for many people, wildlife, timber, and fish represent the currency of survival, and rates of exploitation often outstrip rates of renewal.
Among Zambia’s most impressive wildlife spectacles are:
- Africa’s largest hippo population in the Luangwa River;
- The Thornicroft’s giraffe, which occurs only in Zambia, and only in the Luangwa Valley;
- Great migrations of antelope and wildebeest, roaming across the Liuwa Plains;
- Two endemic species of lechwe, which are found in Kafue Flats and Bangweulu Swamps;
- Some of Africa’s largest populations of lions, leopards, and wild dogs.
The greatest challenges facing Zambia's environment are extremes in weather, poverty, hunger, and a lack of alternative food and income sources. Other challenges include crop damage from wildlife, poor farming techniques, the emergence of large-scale commercial farming, limited markets for alternative crops, and the lack of resource ownership rights to encourage improved land management. Over the past decade, law enforcement has also had limited success in many parts of the country.
WCS has a 25-year history in the region through the work of Dr. Dale Lewis, conducting wildlife research and advising the government and communities on the complex relationship between development and conservation objectives. The WCS-COMACO program provides sustainable sources of alternative incomes and other incentives for conservation to families living around Zambia’s national parks in the Luangwa Valley. To date, the program has recovered more than 50,000 snares and 1,700 firearms that were previously used to illegally kill wild animals (all voluntarily surrendered). The complementary role of COMACO suggests an important way to help reduce the cost of law enforcement and patrols for the Zambian Wildlife Authority while reducing the underlying cause of poaching. Surplus commodities grown by local community members are sold under the brand It’s Wild! and provided more than $500,000 in revenues in 2008. In areas where COMACO operates, aerial surveys show significant increases in wildlife populations, which is not the case for most parts of the country.
Through the results and growing success of COMACO, WCS has one of the few programs that can claim to operate at the scale of an entire ecosystem, contributing to increased wildlife numbers and better protected habitats. The program's business model is still being tested for financial sustainability, but its impact clearly demonstrates growing levels of community cooperation to conservation, showing more and more of these households can resolve their families' income and food supply needs in ways that do not conflict with conservation needs. As a result, 661 former poachers, many of whom once hunted elephants, adopted alternative livelihoods supported by COMACO and have surrendered their firearms. WCS estimates that by removing snares and firearms from the area, COMACO contributes to the annual savings of more than 6,000 wild animals across the Luangwa Valley, including such species as giraffe, zebra, wild dogs, lions, impala, and waterbuck.
Snares are silent, indiscriminate killers of wildlife. In many areas, poachers use snares widely because they are relatively cheap and easy to install. With the help of WCS, the people of Zambia’s Luangwa Valley are turning in their illegal snares and guns, and in return, they are being trained in farming, beekeeping, carpentry, and other livelihood skills. They are also turning the snare wire into decorative jewelry.
In Zambia’s rural Luangwa Valley, a farming co-op known as Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) has helped former poachers and subsistence farmers turn their efforts to new trades that are both more profitable and gentler on the environment.
From the Newsroom
WCS’s COMACO program in Zambia transforms poachers into organic farmers, benefitting local communities and wildlife alike. A new study documents the program’s growing success.
WCS and IUCN launch an international, decade-long action plan to protect eastern chimpanzees by safeguarding 16 crucial areas where their populations number around 48,000 individuals.
“Conservation cotton” from Africa is making its way onto the backs of U2 fans across the world, thanks to a partnership between Hard Rock International, T-shirt company edun LIVE, and WCS.
It’s more than a fashion statement. The latest trend in African jewelry design takes its raw material from snares once used to trap wildlife. And its salesmen are the poachers who laid the snares.