Signs in the Sand: The Untraveled Roads of Luengue-Luiana
October 10, 2019
October 10, 2019
Luengue–Luiana National Park sits in southern Angola and is neighbored by Bwabwata National Park in Namibia to the south and Sioma-Ngwezi National Park in Zambia to the east. Our vision to assist the Angolan Government in turning it into one of the largest national parks in Africa beganin 2015 with a comprehensive survey of the park’s recovery potential following decades of civil war. Results suggested only 10 to 30 lions could be left in the park, highlighting the critical need for our reintroduction project. This blog explores a crucial part of the ongoing process: community involvement.
The sand continues to thicken as we inch our way down the road running through the heart of our study area in Angola’s Luengue-Luiana National Park. We are in the Important Habitat Zone (IHZ), which at nearly 15,000 km2 (about the size of the state of Connecticut), is a whole new world for us to discover. As the Project Manager, I’m leading our Education Unit members on an outreach mission to the roughly 220 small communal settlements in the IHZ. The roundtrip is approximately 400 km and will likely take us almost 40 days to complete.
While it may seem an easy enough adventure to organize, that’s unfortunately not the case here. Without a reliable cellular network in the region, we’re making our way thanks to maps drawn in the sand, some local knowledge and a lot of ambition. Armed with only our vehicle and enough food to (hopefully) last us six weeks, we accept the unspoken challenges of exploring the heart of Luengue-Luiana.
After three decades of civil war that largely wiped out wildlife populations in Angola, Panthera is working to restore lions and their prey to Luengue-Luiana in part by reducing illegal bushmeat hunting. We navigate through the park’s dusty roads with one goal in mind: to introduce ourselves to every single household within the region. In order to be successful in our mission, we need to listen to community members and help them see how the return of iconic wildlife will benefit them. Ecotourism is a possibility here if we get this right. We’re looking at models that create good jobs and allow the communities to benefit directly from tourism.
One of the most important steps we’ve already taken to engage communities in the park’s restoration has been to establish an Ecological Management Team to help lay the groundwork for tourists to visit. With help from the village headman and secretary to identify candidates from around Mbambamgando region, we now have a team of ten people who are in charge of infrastructure efforts such as building new roads and searching for permanent water sources. Almost 30 km of new roads have been built in the park already. Eventually, we will establish a team of Community Game Guards to actively patrol for poachers alongside park management. We’re trying to create a functioning park for the wildlife while establishing a sustainable environment for the people who live here.
Halfway through our journey, as the sun sets over the open areas of the village of Tukoma, I reflect on our mission. We’re preparing ourselves for another three weeks of living in the remote shadows of Angola’s breathtaking landscapes. So far, we’ve been lucky enough to meet with roughly 2,500 different people.
While many villagers have made an impression on me, one woman from the Mbucusso Tribe in the village of Kataha Thikuyu stands out. At around 100 years old, the lines of her face hold stories that can’t be found in any book. She has lost her sight but still remembers what the world around her used to look like many years ago. Using her grandson as a translator, she shared memories of a time when buffalo and elephant covered the vast open areas that are home to her people. These stories do more than we ever could to inspire her community and give us hope for our plans to recover the park to its former glory.
Signs of animals, such as elephant tracks leading to water, or a quick glimpse of a duiker trotting off in the distance, remind us why we’re undertaking this mission. Luengue-Luiana is turning out to be that piece of Africa that everyone is longing for. With its seemingly untouched habitat, the park waits patiently. We dream that these signs in the sand will eventually lead to lions and the return of their resonating roar over Luengue-Luiana.
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union through IUCN Save Our Species Initiative (www.saveourspecies.org/). Its contents are the sole responsibility of Panthera and do not necessarily reflect the views of IUCN or the European Union (https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid). Save Our Species Initiative contributes to the long-term survival of threatened species, their habitats and the people who depend on them by supporting civil society organizations. We are also grateful for the support of the Lion Recovery Fund, Fondation Segré and the World Wildlife Fund.