Can Artificial Intelligence Help Pinch Poachers?
31 October 2019
People, livestock and wildlife living together harmoniously became a reality with the establishment of Simalaha Community Conservancy in western Zambia in 2012. Since then, not one animal has been poached. The resident community and game scouts make sure of it
Wildlife returns to Simalaha
In 2012, a 240 km² sanctuary in the 1800 km² Simalaha Community Conservancy was fenced, with inhabited villages inside the fence. Restocking of wildlife began, and the community requested that only wildlife that naturally occurred there should be re-introduced.
Wildlife restocking started in 2014 with seven species now living happily back on the sweeping Simalaha plains. First came impala – a total of 240 from Zambia, then 155 wildebeest and 78 zebra from Namibia, 25 red lechwe, 32 puku and 25 waterbuck from Zambia, and eight giraffe also from Namibia. Still to come are more zebra, along with roan, sable and buffalo.
We drive to the Simalaha Community Conservancy in the KAZA TFCA, following Simalaha Wildlife Manager Mwambwa Nyambe, the back of his 4×4 loaded with game scouts. They are a few of the 22 trained and armed game scouts chosen from the communities in the two chiefdoms to protect Simalaha’s wildlife, but today the scouts are game spotting. Before we even enter the conservancy, we see waterbuck standing just inside the fence. Minutes after we go through the gates, a massive herd of 100 impala stop us in our tracks. Game is prolific and birdlife is abundant too.
Driving across the long grassed plains, we see a herd of zebra in the distance, grazing characteristically with wildebeest. We follow Nyambe’s lead and as we draw closer, the scene is even stranger. Grazing harmoniously with the zebra and wildebeest, all with young ones, is a herd of cattle. We stop and get out of the vehicle to appreciate the scene. Nyambe walks over to us smiling broadly: ‘So what do you think?’ he asks. ‘Isn’t this just amazing?’
‘Animals and wildlife move freely and are reproducing, which shows they are not stressed, and they live around the villages and in peace with the community. I have been in wildlife management for a long time, but this project has changed my mindset. I have seen that when communities are empowered, there is more protection of wildlife than when the government protects wildlife with laws. To stop poaching, involve communities living alongside wildlife in the management of the wildlife, and poaching will stop. The community is our partners and helpers in conservation, this is my experience and what I tell the scouts.’
‘This is the first project of its kind in Zambia where two districts and two chiefs of different tribes have come together and are working together – it is unique to this project and it’s a great success. It’s also the first time that a conservation area was fenced without moving people, and wildlife was brought to them. Three years later there have been no problems and no poaching. People and wildlife are living in harmony and they take care of the wildlife because they are empowered and have a sense of ownership of the wildlife. So it is possible and it’s incredible. What a change in people’s lives.’
From smuggler to scout
For seven years, Matthew Silumesii was a smuggler. Petrol and maize meal were his contraband and he smuggled these into Botswana in order to eek out a living. Today his life is completely different. ‘Now I have a vision and I look forward to the future,’ he says.
Everything changed for Matthew in 2012, with the development of Simalaha Community Conservancy. Matthew qualified as a game scout, one of 11 chosen from each of the two chiefdoms involved in the project. He trained for three months in Zambia and South Africa, learnt anti-poaching skills and did semi-military training to be adept with firearms. Now he is a senior scout in charge of 10 men and says he is happiest when out on patrol – up to 15 days at a time – protecting the wildlife of Simalaha.
‘There has been no poaching of any wildlife,’ confirms Matthew with a bright smile. ‘We explained to the people the importance of the animals and future benefits from them, so they also help us to protect the wildlife and inform us of any new people in the area.’
Small in stature but tenacious in nature, Matthew says: ‘The job has given me light in my life, and I thank Chief Sekute and Peace Parks Foundation for this. My kids are going to school now and have DSTV so they can see what’s happening in the world. I can now provide well for my family. None of this would have been possible as a smuggler.’
Story by Keri Harvey