NKOLE NKOLE, Mumbwa
THE catchphrase “Train hard and fight easy” is what greets you at the entrance of the Chunga Fire Training School in the Kafue
The park measures 22,500 kilometres and stretches over three provinces in Zambia. In the dry season, the area becomes highly susceptible to dangerous wild fire, and fire management in the Kafue ecosystem is therefore critical for the park to thrive.
This is what fire experts from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an environmental organisation concerned with protecting the earth’s natural resources and beauty, demonstrated last week during a fire training programme held at the Chunga Fire Training School.
The training was held in collaboration with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife and beneficiaries of the programme included stakeholders from Government, the local community and private operators.
TNC country director Victor Simudaala says the organisation recognises the importance of building capacity in fire management in the park and has been conducting training in Chunga in the last few years.
“When we were putting in our initial investments in Zambia, we came in to work with Government as our lead partner to address issues that affect or threaten the integrity of the Kafue National Park and fire came out as one of the major challenges that this park faces,” Mr Simudaala explains.
Information on wild fire is something that many people lack, including understanding the serious risk it poses to the survival of the national park.
But the destructive nature of fire can also be used for good. Many are unaware that fire can actually be used to sprout new life, particularly in spaces such as national parks and game management areas.
When the TNC scoped investments in Zambia, the Kafue ecosystem was chosen for its ecological and socio-economic importance to the country.
For its work to be effective, TNC has been providing the Department of National Parks and Wildlife with the technical support and equipment necessary for the management of fires.
From the data collected over the years, it is clear that close to 60 percent of the park and around 50 percent of game management areas get affected by fires, therefore the programmes run by TNC in the park are also aimed at making it more financially sustainable.
“Our idea is basically how we can reduce fires together with Government because it is a huge threat to the integrity of the park. It also threatens the growth of tourism in this park because when you get late fires, it destroys the vegetation, which most of these wild animals thrive on,” Mr Simudaala says.
When tourists arrive in the country, their expectation is to see a beautiful landscape but an area devastated by fire negatively impacts tourism.
Fire management is essentially the best way to maintain a good landscape and attract tourists to the country.
“We have so far trained more than 200 people and we are now looking at building a fire strategy plan for the Kafue ecosystem,” he shares.
While the current Wildlife Act prohibits people from starting a wild fire in the park unless it is a managed fire, relying on the law itself is not adequate. Through its capacity building programmes, TNC is building a system where early burning is prioritised.
This way, in the event a fire is started in the latter part of the year, it will have minimal effects on the park because the area would be insulated from late wild fires.
TNC is also working with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife to have a coherent strategy that incorporates the communities in its overall fire management plans.
Communities are an integral part of TNC’s work because most fires are started by people. Whether it is the travelling public, poachers or the communities surrounding the park, all are target groups of the organisation.
Principal ecologist at the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Jones Makonde, says fire is generally important in ecology because it shapes the ecosystem, especially the vegetation.
“We can use fire for management purposes to either protect the ecosystem or to use its destructive nature to alter the ecosystem, depending on what you want to use it for,” Mr Makonde says.
Fire controls the vegetation and, in so doing, also determines the type of animals one can find in an ecosystem.
Naturally when temperatures are high in the dry season, uncontrolled fire can start where there are shiny stones or objects. It can also start when lightning strikes a tree.
Prescribed fire or the controlled application of fire to the land to accomplish specific land management goals, allows new shoots to grow for animals to graze and prevents vegetation inside parks, especially shrubs, from growing too big and decreasing visibility.
The shorter the grass, the easier it is for animals to be seen in the wild, which is also good for tourism.
“If, for instance, we lost the trees and the area became grassland, you are going to have a shift from the type of animals you found that graze on trees, to the animals that feed on grass, so that’s how fire shapes the system and one way we can use it,” Mr Makonde explains.
Gilmore Dickson is director at Kaingu Safari Lodge located in Kafue National Park and emphasises that good fire management is essential to keeping the Kafue National Park thriving.
“About 60 percent of the park area historically burns every year, so fire management is critical, but not all fire is bad fire,” he says.
In the hot season, with high temperatures and hot winds, fire in the area becomes extremely hazardous and can spread for hundreds of kilometres if unchecked.
However, as long as an area is burned early, it will not burn again for the rest of that year and is safeguarded for animals and for the tourists viewing animals in the park.
“At the end of the day, by carrying out this burning, we are supporting the Department of National Parks and Wildlife because there isn’t the resources and the manpower to carry out early burning in the whole of Kafue, so it’s up to operators like us to also put our hands in our pocket and support [them],” Mr Dickson emphasises.
The Kafue system may be TNC’s flagship area, but the organisation is also available to work with the government and consider other ecosystems using the lessons learnt in the Kafue ecosystem over the last few years.