Kilombero Expedition Camp

Nyerere National Park, Tanzania, October 2023

Southern Tanzania Part 3

The final leg of our Southern Tanzania trip was to take us to the Msolwa sector of Nyerere National Park. This visit was going to be another very different experience whereby we would be in yet another wildlife area under rehabilitation. But, unlike Usangu that is 5 years in, conservation work being done in the Msolwa sector is in its infancy.  

The area used to be part of the famed Selous Game Reserve, home to 75,000 km2 of true, raw wilderness. It is an almost fabled place for us, so it felt surreal that we would actually be afforded the opportunity of exploring this vast and inaccessible area.

Deep in the remote part of Nyerere National Park, we were far from the core tourism area, and Six River’s Africa, Kilombero Expedition Camp was to be our base for the next 7 days. The camp sits beautifully amongst a forested tree area upon the banks of the Kilombero River. The view from our tent looked over the wide river with our neighbors across the water being a pair of goliath heron with two teenage juveniles, a pair of fish eagles, numerous pods of hippo and a few rather large crocodiles.

In the mornings we awoke to the sounds of the forest birds and the hippo’s contact calling from pod to pod down the river. Evenings were a cacophony of frogs croaking and cicadas zitting. The harsh call of a bush baby often broke through the subtle sounds of the insects and frogs, peppered with numerous calling small owlets.

In order to gain an understanding of the conservation work being achieved here, it is important to provide some background and context to the current situation.

Because the Msolwa sector was formally part of the Selous Game Reserve, hunting was permitted and the area was divided into numerous hunting blocks. Trophy hunting for big game such as elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard were permitted as well as all the antelope species. This took place for many decades until the status of the area was formally changed to National Park and absorbed into Nyerere National Park in 2019.

Not only was the area degraded due to the hunting of its large mega fauna over a long period of time, due to its remoteness and challenges in accessibility, protection of the area was a massive challenge and poaching for elephant ivory, bush meat and illegal fishing was rampant.

An example as to what extent the area has been ravaged can be seen through the elephant population. A survey conducted in the 1970’s put the elephant population at 120,000. At this time it was the most densely populated elephant area in East Africa. Today, the estimated elephant population is 15,000 to 20,000, although even this figure feels too high. In fact, elephants are conspicuous by their absence in what is prime habitat for this species.

Six Rivers Africa CEO, Brandon Kemp, was the visionary behind the Usangu project. Prior to Six Rivers Africa being established, Brandon had secured funding to collar roan and sable antelope in Usangu so that researchers could begin to understand how these two antelope species were using the habitat here. A mortality signature was detected from one of the sable antelope, and the team went to investigate. Here they found a water source that had been poisoned by poachers. The area was scattered with carcasses that included the sable, a leopard, lion, dozens of vultures and various other animal, fish and bird species.

It was from this incident that Brandon and his team came to the realization that research would not be enough to restore a wild area. They began to successfully secure further independent funding that would assist with the protection of the area and Six Rivers Africa was established.

Six Rivers Africa (SRA) is a not for profit organization with its principle supporter being Sir Jim Ratcliffe. Its four focus areas are research, protection, social responsibility and economic sustainability.

Following the success of Usangu in Ruaha National Park, Six Rivers Africa wanted to replicate this model over a far larger area where a positive impact could be made. Exploratory work was undertaken in 2020 and this is when the potential for stabilizing and rehabilitating the Msolwa sector was identified.

In order to achieve both research and protection objectives, SRA has entered into agreements with The Tanzanian government in order to provide assistance in logistical support for anti-poaching as well as funding and resources to support TANAPA in ongoing research in Ruaha and Nyerere National Parks.

In October 2022 Kilombero Expedition camp was set up in order to begin their supportive work in both research and protection.

It was another mammoth task. The area had not been patrolled nor utilized for years, so as a starting point, the road network system had to be opened up again. This is still ongoing and we experienced firsthand just how difficult this is to do when traversing through very thick bush!

All the wildlife is still very skittish so continued habituation to friendly vehicles is an ongoing process. The team are however very positive about the progress that has been made in just one year. Last year the game was very difficult to see at all, and although there is still a lot more work to be done in this sphere, more and more wildlife is becoming more comfortable.

Most of the research work currently being done is baseline work in order to start gaining an understanding of the area.

To understand current biodiversity levels, an extensive array of camera traps are being monitored and species recorded. There are 150 camera traps making up 75 stations, thus making it one of the largest camera trap arrays in the world.

Various collaring projects of mega fauna are also underway with target species being elephant, lion, leopard, wild dog and crocodile. All projects are in their first year and the information will again be sed to gain a great understanding on biodiversity and how each species is utilizing the habitat.

We were very fortunate to see a large wild dog pack of 35 members strong (the biggest wild dog pack we have ever seen), as well as a coalition of 5 young male lions. Both the wild dog pack and the male lions where fairly comfortable with our presence, which is a very positive indication of the habituation work being done.

A satellite tagging project studying the movement of tiger fish in the Kilombero River is also currently in progress. Our time coincided with some of the tagging and I was captivated at seeing close hand these incredible predatory fish.

A large scale aerial wildlife census survey of large areas of both Nyerere and Ruaha begins shortly, and these will be done on an annual basis.

There is the problem with inevitable human wildlife conflict on the park’s boundary, particularly between people and elephants where the area is rich in alluring sugar cane fields. In fact, an intruding elephant was killed by villagers just a few weeks before our arrival. The collaring of elephants is just beginning with one of the intentions being to serve as an early warning mechanism, and support on the ground to keep elephants within the park before they leave the park boundary.

With regards to SRA supporting TANAPA with protection of the area, 500 helicopter hours per year are now dedicated to anti-poaching. This has greatly helped in curbing poaching and illegal fishing.

The various tasks at hand, coupled with working in vast and difficult to access areas seem overwhelming, so it has been incredibly inspiring to see how this work is being achieved.

Partnerships are not only with government, and Asilia Africa has partnered with Six Rivers Africa in the social responsibility and economic sustainability areas of work.

There is always cause and effect. With anti-poaching being ramped up, people that have in the past survived from poaching in the park are now impacted. This situation means that very important work in the communities outside the park needs to be done to ensure long term sustainably for both people as well as a well-functioning, healthy ecosystem in the national park.

SRATA (Six Rivers Africa Training Academy) is a training school that will open in 2024. This fully funded school will aim to provide training specific to the safari tourism sector. Students will receive full scholarships and will only be selected from communities bordering national parks in Southern Tanzania. There will be four areas of very specific training: chef skills; waiters and housekeeping; assistant mangers; and guiding. There will also be a feeder program of employment upon graduation.

Economic sustainability is as important as all the other factors and commercial photographic tourism is the most sustainable way of doing so.

In establishing Usungu Expedition Camp, Asilia took a leap of faith. They had taken on an area where the wildlife still needed to be habituated, predators have still not fully returned to the area, the habitat itself is still in a recovery phase after intense cattle grazing, and logistics of running a camp are challenging to say the least. However, it has been just 5 years since the area was first identified as a possible area for successful rehabilitation and the progress has been remarkable. Sable herds are becoming very relaxed, enormous herds of topi and large herds of zebra and eland are returning, and the predators are slowing starting to patrol the area once more.

At Kilombero the differences in just 1 year are also pretty remarkable. Last year very few plains game or predators were seen. On our game drives we saw herds of the beautiful Niassa wildebeest, hartebeest, lots of impala and plenty of warthog. The game right now is shy and skittish and habituation is an ongoing process but with continued presence, it will get there.

SRA and Asilia Africa would again like to replicate at Kilombero what has been achieved at Usangu, and it is envisioned that the area will be suitable for tourism activities in a number of years.

Drifting along the wide kilombero river, it is wild! Forests of trees crowd the river banks with many hanging beautifully over the water, gnarled roots exposed. Giant king fishers, great white pelicans, yellow billed storks and goliath herons flit past. Navigational hazards include pods of hippopotamus and hidden rocks which keeps the ride just on the right side of exciting. The occasional tiger fish will give rise. It is truly magical …

The past two weeks have been an incredible privilege to visit these areas that are on the road to recovery. In a time that seems to be dominated by depressingly bad news about the environment, we feel uplifted and rejuvenated by getting a glimpse into what can be achieved through collaboration between substantial independent funders, a receptive government and sustainable commercial activity partners.

Tanzania National Parks Authority, SRA and Asilia Africa are showing what can be achieved, and what can definitely be a model for effective change for our ever diminishing and threatened natural world.

Southern Tanzania Part 1 – Jabali Ridge

Southern Tanzania Part 2 – The Usangu Wetlands

Copyrighted by Chris Fallows @2020