The Usangu Wetlands

Ruaha National Park, Tanzania, Sept 2023

Southern Tanzania, Part 2

Our good friend, Brandon Kemp, former country manager for Asilia Tanzania, had for a number of previous years been telling us about the incredible Asilia Africa project he was heading up. ‘Presence, not profit,’ was how he coined it. It was his strong believe and conviction that tourism could play a vital and meaningful role in pioneering conservation projects, and he knew the Usangu Project could do just that. He also had tremendous excitement about the incredible potential of the area from a biodiversity and wildlife point of view.

It’s a 5 hour drive from Jabali Ridge in the core area of Ruaha National Park to the Usangu Wetlands. I was glad of the drive as it gave us a good appreciation of the mammoth task involved in setting up a lodge here, even before we arrived.

Once you leave Jongemero airstrip, it’s a 2 hour drive through very thick Miombo woodland. Samwell turned around to us as we were driving and explained that this road had had to be made by Asilia in order to set up the camp.

Without any exaggeration, I can tell you that this Miombo woodland is impossibly thick and dense with millions of trees packed together. Reflecting on the task of building a road that takes a good 2 hours to drive in order to reach this very remote area, gave us the first real sense of just how courageous this project was.

The initial challenges were not only from a logistical point of view, but also, the natural integrity of the area had suffered hugely for many decades.

In 1974 the Government of Tanzania set about relocating people out of the area to form small communities were services such as water points, schools and hospitals could be more easily provided. At the same time the area was granted game reserve status. There was strong resistance and many people stayed, continuing their fishing and livestock practices illegally. Game Reserve status also meant that trophy and game hunting were permitted, and hunting blocks were allocated here.

In 2006 Usangu was incorporated into Ruaha National Park and from this point onwards, only photographic tourism activities were permitted. In reality however, the regulations that made the area National Park were never enforced. The area, already suffering from the effects of trophy hunting, continued to suffer from the human pressures of cattle grazing, bush meat poaching and illegal fishing.

It is worthy to note that the government prepared the local villagers for a number of years before the proclamation of the national park was made. New cattle grazing areas were made available further south and educators were brought in to teach new skills for employment. I guess change is always difficult, and with no enforcement of the rules, it was easy for things to remain status qou.

Poachers hunting for bush meat and collecting honey often started bush fires; not only were fishing longlines and gill nets set in the water courses, but water sources were often poisoned, killing any wildlife drinking from here. The biggest impact however came from tens of thousands of cattle utilizing and grazing the area.

Overgrazing had a severe impact on the habitat. Most of the marsh grasslands were completely overgrazed, leaving little grazing for the natural game. The dense grasses also have an important biological function in keeping evaporation levels down and protecting the marshlands by keeping it wet and moist. Usangu Wetland is the source of the Ruaha River and a shrinking marshland was having far reaching effects on the river system itself.

Quite frankly, from a biodiversity point of view, the area was almost completely dysfunctional.

In 2018, Asilia took the decision to implement their presence not profit initiative here by establishing Usangu Expedition Camp.

This initiative had the effect of galvanizing TANAP (Tanzania National Parks Authority) into patrolling the area more frequently. Poaching began to decrease but cattle grazing was still a massive problem. Independent donor and philanthropist, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, stepped in and donated funds to create a helicopter anti-poaching unit. This is when real strides of progress began to be made.

Herds of cattle would be rounded up resulting in herders having to pay a fine for the cattle to be released. Unfortunately, this did not work and just a few days after the cattle would be released, the herders would bring them back into the park once again.

This happened on a continuous basis until the very difficult decision was made to no longer impose a fine, but rather the cattle were confiscated and sold. In October 2022 7,000 cattle were removed from the Usangu marshlands and sold. This finally has the effect of keeping the cattle overgrazing issue at bay.

I have spent a lot of time writing about the history and issues faced by Usangu because I believe the Usangu story is a very positive and important one.

The first few Asilia guests experienced Usangu by fly camp from 2018 to 2021 and the official expedition camp was opened in June 2022. This expedition style camp has been very effectively designed with many story-telling elements. Confiscated fish traps and boat paddles decorate the main area. Mokoro’s used for illegal fishing have been used for tables, and confiscated bicycles wheels from poachers are used for braai (barbeque) grids.

It is an extremely authentic bush experience, with most meals being prepared over the fire. Each day I was amazed by what the kitchen team were able to produce by cooking and baking over coals only.

Best of all, one can sleep under the African sky in a star cube! This is as the name implies, a square cube made of mosquito netting. Lying in your bed, one can gaze up at the African night sky and be dazzled by the exclusive show put on by the real stars.

The game drive vehicles are also very unique. They are upcycled Land rovers using a Range rover 4 liter V8 engine that runs off ethanol. The ethanol is produced as a waste product from sugar, which is sourced from the sugar cane plantations in Kilombero close by. Pretty unique, but don’t let looks deceive you. First impressions is that it looks a little like a toy car, but boy does it have power and handles any 4×4 conditions better than most safari vehicles. I also loved how quiet the engine was, an especially great help when game viewing in an area where the animals are still getting used to seeing friendly vehicles.

What I loved most about Usangu from a guest experience point of view is that one is made to feel part of the recovery and rehabilitation process. One should not come here expecting to see cats on every game drive, and animals comfortable with our presence. This is an area that has been severely impacted on for many decades and as such it is in a recovery phase.

Despite this, our first morning drive was truly memorable. In fact, I have not seen Chris this excited about a wild area for a very long time.

The edges of the marshland are surrounded by beautiful, thickly forested white thorn acacia woodland. Emerging from this one looks out over an immense grass- and marshland, with varyingly wet water courses running through it.

On that first morning, the sight before us was unimaginable. Many thousands of plains game dotted the open plains, giving cause to the area’s apt name, ‘The Promised Land.’ Sable in herds of up to 40 plus grazed close by. In the distance, a herd of 150 Eland roamed. Beyond that, and as far as the eye could see, herd upon herd of topi and zebra passed through. It felt as if we were in a bush Utopia, a Serengeti on a more diverse scale, and we were the only people around to embrace it.

Anderson is one of the guides here and has been at Usangu from the very, very beginning. In fact he was the supervisor of clearing the road through the miombo woodland. He guided us on a number of drives and it was fascinating to hear already how the area is rehabilitating.

At first, he recalled, when they did see small herds of animals, all they saw was their dust! This left them wondering how on earth they would be able to provide guests with a wildlife experience.

The authorities only began to confiscate cattle in October 2022 so the cattle had already grazed through most of last year’s dry season.

Traversing the marshland presently, we observed the grassland to be thick and bountiful so it was extremely surprising to hear that last year most of the area was just sand and dust, and mostly devoid of grass. This season, with the habitat having had a chance to do what it needs, it has given the biodiversity a reason to return. Now, the guides are seeing plain’s game in huge herds in the area for the first time. Unbelievably, a herd of approximately 2,000 Topi have been sighted, with herd sizes of 300 to 500 animals strong being more common.

Everyone involved in the project has been astounded that change on this scale has taken place so quickly, and the overriding feeling is that the recovery potential is immense.

Our experience was that the sable herds were already well on their way to being comfortable with the presence of vehicles, and we had a number of tremendous sightings of them. On our first afternoon we came across a rare sighting of a bachelor herd in close proximity to a breeding herd and its dominant male. We witnessed great behavior of the dominant male asserting his superiority over the younger males. Strong posturing and a rush or two were all that were needed to keep the young males aware of the hierarchy structure. They had no chance of mingling with the females!

The giraffe herds are also generally fairly comfortable and it was wonderful to watch them browsing in the white thorn acacia forests.

The large herds of topi, zebra and eland are still quite skittish and tricky to get close too, but this is part of the experience of spending time in an area of rehabilitation. Despite this, the experience of seeing these huge herds, that are not commonly seen in other wildlife ares in these kinds of numbers, was mind blowing.

The water courses and wetland areas were great for birding and we uniquely got to see very large flocks of yellow billed storks and great white pelicans. Pairs of crowned cranes were common and perhaps the most exciting was coming across a flock of 14 saddle bill storks together.

Breeding pairs of collared pratincoles dominated the dry mudded areas along the water course, making the area extremely sensitive, so we tried to stay clear as much as possible. We did however get great views of them as they flew around the vehicle, hunting bugs are we drove through the tall grasses.

Part of the guest experience is to be actively involved in the habitat rehabilitation process through the various activities. There is a strong research element and getting a baseline of the biodiversity is one of the current projects. Each evening we got set up our own camera-traps in various areas to monitor the after dark visitors.

We were completely hooked after the first session revealed a very exciting surprise. Our guide, Bihati, had a quick look and told us a little disappointingly that there were only 5 images taken. We flicked through the images. Image number 1 and 2 were of 2 Kirk’s Dik Dik, not bad …

As we looked at image number 3, we felt we had won a gold medal … it was a leopard!

Images 4 and 5 were an aardwolf!

For the rest of our stay we managed to pick up more aardwolf, jackal and some porcupines, all a very interesting insight into who was around and using the area.

A short night drive is done every night whereby a thermal imaging camera is used for detecting warm blooded creatures. Guests are invited to record all sightings on I-Naturalist where Usangu has a dedicated group for the sightings here. The value of citizen science always feels great, and important information is being collected all the time.

Elephants are being seen more and more frequently, although they are still quite difficult to approach. It is going to be fascinating to see how the increased presence of elephants will shape the habitat and the landscape. Already, many of the acacia trees have been knocked down by elephant activity, serving to open up areas for animals such as impala.

With areas being opened up by elephant, the grassland being rehabilitated and the water source being prevalent, the habitat will become more conducive for buffalo. Already we came across 3 large-ish herds up to 500 strong. Big buffalo herds should eventually give rise to large prides of lions utilizing the system as well. And so the process goes …

Sightings of Lions and leopards are starting to become more frequent, and lions are particular are slightly less shy. I quite liked the fact that these two predators were more difficult to find. After all, the Serengeti was not built in a day and it is good to get an understanding that any rehabilitation process has to start from somewhere before becoming iconic.

I also feel the experience at Usangu gives tremendous appreciation for what has been achieved in the well-established and well-protected wildlife areas that we are all used to visiting and experiencing. I don’t think this is something we really take time to think about.

I also very strongly feel that spending time in an area that is being built up from the ashes has its place as being a tremendous process to experience and be part of.

In reflection, the tremendously huge herds of zebra, eland and especially topi were an exceptional sight to see. We have been privileged to spend time in many of Southern and East Africa’s wild areas and seeing herds of these sizes are not the norm. This is what makes Usangu unique, and we know this is what the area will be become renowned for. 

We departed Usangu with huge excitement at having had the great opportunity of seeing a place such as this in its infancy, and with so few other vehicles in sight. For anyone who has experienced Africa in numerous ways, you need to get to Usangu. It is without doubt that Usangu has the potential to become one of East Africa’s great wildlife areas.

Southern Tanzania Part 1 – Jabali Ridge

Southern Tanzania Part 3 – Kilombero Expedition Camp

Copyrighted by Chris Fallows @2020