The Rising Phoenix

Kilombero Expedition Camp, Nyerere National Park, Southern Tanzania

October, 2023

Heading to the South Eastern side of Tanzania, we flew towards one of Africa’s truest remaining giant wilderness areas where only the extremely brave and visionary put their shoulder to the conservation grindstone. Six Rivers Africa (SRA) is a not for profit organization funded by Sir Jim Ratcliffe, and facilitated and overseen by SRA CEO, Brandon Kemp and his team. SRA are providing logistical support for anti-poaching and research funding to Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA.) They are not afraid of the mountain of issues that need tackling, whilst never loosing site of the potential and importance of the task at hand.

We landed in Kilombero, which is in the heart of Nyerere National Park, (formerly Selous game reserve).

You know you have landed somewhere remote and special when you are the only two people on a 16-seater Cessna caravan plane, and the seasoned bush pilot takes photographs of the area as he only flies there a handful of times in a year.

Nyerere, totaling some 75 000km 2, was home just a few decades before, to Africa’s greatest concentration of elephants at over 120 000. That population has dwindled to well less than 10 000 due to the ravages of wholesale poaching and a previous government who were complicit in the plunder.

Fortunately, a more visionary political regime exists who understand the potential of eco-tourism and sees Tanzania’s wildlife as one of its greatest remaining assets.

Together with rangers from TANAPA, a dedicated team of veterinarians, and the open mindedness of the government to work in partnership with foreign donors and teams like Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s, positive political changes and significant inroads are afoot to tackle issues like logging, ivory and fish poaching, wildlife poisoning and more.

The area itself is truly spectacular with various rivers laden with iconic fish species such as tiger fish and vundu, along with huge numbers of hippos, crocs and other wildlife being the cache of the silvery snakes that wind through the almost endless wildness of Nyerere.

Adjacent to the rivers are magnificent hard wood riverine forests, and inland from these the miombo woodland is punctuated by bai’s and grassland. It is huge, diverse, and like a repentant disciple, begging to be reborn.

The challenges are very significant, as was apparent when we joined the team on various anti-poaching patrols where the TANAPA team confiscated gill nets, drying racks and boats used by desperate poachers. It is a complicated situation, as all poaching challenges are.

Flying in the helicopter makes you aware of what is at stake as a wall of fire on the extremities of the park create a dark cloud of smoke that looms like a specter over the pristine forests adjacent to them. Huge swathes of land and primary forest are being cleared for cattle farming, trees are being felled for their hard wood, and the fingers of human impact spill illegally into the fringes of the park.

This firsthand insight as to what would be the future of Nyerere if support from SRA dried up, and TANAPA did not patrol to keep the encroachment at bay, was a real wake up call. This is a once off chance, for when the habitat is gone, it is game over.

It made me realise just what was at stake to ensure a more sustainable future of one of the world’s few remaining truly wild areas, rather than a once-off exploitation and rape of a wilderness.

The SRA team and Asilia Africa have various projects aimed at empowering communities living adjacent to both Usangu and Kilombero with guide, chef and tourism training providing for more sustainable options than poaching.

Added to this Six Rivers Africa is sponsoring a new school to educate future generations and inspire them to protect what makes Southern Tanzania so special.

Research is vital to gaining a better understanding on what species are in an area, the interconnectedness between these species, and the myriad of threats they face. As such Six Rivers Africa has also sponsored the collaring by TANAPA of various iconic species in the area in order to get a better idea of these animals spatial utilization of the wilderness, and how the team can go about mitigating against human wildlife conflict.

During our stay at the Six River’s Kilombero Camp, we joined the team on an elephant collaring exercise taking place in an area that had been turned into sugar cane plantations by the Illovo sugarcane company from South Africa. This plantation has effectively cut two wilderness areas in half, creating the inevitable scenario of elephants pillaging the crops as they traversed previously wild areas.

I was struck by the challenges the collaring team faced by way of terrain and resources, yet so impressed by the vets from the Tanzanian research team (Tawiri) who were dedicated, caring and committed to advancing their knowledge of wildlife movements in the area to create positive outcomes.

In this agricultural environment, collaring the elephants is difficult. The elephants first need to be driven out of the sugarcane fields, secondly darted from the helicopter, and then coerced into the small open patches adjacent to the sugercane. Finally, a ground team needs to be able to reach this area, bearing in mind there is a limited road network, in order to help assist with the fitting of a collar.

It is a very emotional operation to witness, charged with potential complications, and the stress of all involved, most notably the elephants, is palpable. In most places where work of this nature is being undertaken, highly specialized teams with many years of field experience are able to perform their work in areas with ease of access and a plethora of resources at hand. Here that is not the case, and it is tough work with passion going a long way.

Additional challenges, like elephants full of sugarcane complicating the absorption of tranquilizers, makes it that much more fraught with potential disaster.

I came away with the feeling that this was a team of smart people, doing everything they could to make a difference in a place where thinking on your feet was often more important than sticking to a text book.

Above all I truly hope that other visionaries will come on board to compliment both TANAPA and SRA efforts to make the juice worth the squeeze in the long term.  A lot is fragile in Africa and you can only hope that any future regime shifts will have the same foresight to welcome collaboration and help, the fruits of which were so clearly being demonstrated at Kilombero.

Wildlife, although still shy, is here. We saw very good numbers of hundreds of impala, herds of zebra and buffalo, and got good looks at Niassa wildebeest that we had never seen before with their characteristic white band across their snouts.

The highlight however was the privilege to encounter a huge pack of 35 wild dogs, Africa’s second most endangered carnivore after the Simian Wolf of Ethiopia.

We raced to get to them as the collaring team had no guarantee that in this huge wilderness they would easily find the pack again.

We watched as one was collared with the hope of learning how these endangered animals moved around the Kilombero area.

Later that day we saw a collation of 5 male lions, and joined the research team on several tiger fish tagging trips where satellite tags were being fitted to assess their movements.

In addition to the tiger fish work, research is being done by Dr Xander Combrink and TANAPA on crocodiles to understand how these ancient and huge reptiles utilize the Kilombero river, as well as the threats they face from gill netting and poaching.

It is not often you can say that in one day you got to watch the collaring of a wild dog, tagging of a tiger fish, and photograph five male lions within just a few kilometers of each other.

During the helicopter patrols we joined up and down the Kilombero river, illegal fish poachers were often exposed, and were subsequently chased off and their equipment destroyed.

Encouragingly, in the time that SRA have provided TANAPA with aerial and ground support, the number of poaching incidents has dropped significantly.

As an aside, the location of the camp set atop a raised river bank under mahogany and ficus trees, with it’s beautiful sweeping views up and down the river with very comfortable luxury tents, was a wonderful location from which to explore this vast wilderness.

Kilombero has been a once in a lifetime location to visit as, like Usango, this was a chance to experience one of our planet’s great wilderness areas in its rebirth. Nyerere is a giant that has been kicked, punched and set on fire, but for now it is healing and waking up through the care of dedicated foot soldiers restoring these Eden’s to their former glory.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but maybe a journey into a truly wild Eden is worth even more.

Monique and I walk away from this experience inspired that such truly wild places still do exist, determined to tell their story, and motivated to support the efforts of those brave enough to be involved.

In Usangu and Kilombero we met true heroes, those that fight for the protection of the wild and its biodiversity, and by virtue of that, they fight for our future as humanity too.

Copyrighted by Chris Fallows @2020