Perched at the northern end of landlocked Zambia lies the wilderness of Bangweulu. The wetland system, composed of Lake Bangweulu and its surrounding swamps and floodplains, is home to a diverse body of wildlife, thanks to annual flooding that creates a unique ecosystem.
Bangweulu is also home to a growing human population, and striking a balance for man and beast’s coexistence has been a challenge. Due to local residents’ reliance on the area’s resources, efforts to designate Bangweulu a national park have largely failed (though part of the area is recognized as a Ramsar Site and the wetlands are considered an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International). In recent decades, human settlement, overfishing and unregulated hunting have placed Bangweulu under stress, threatening the fragile ecosystem. The endemic black lechwe is a main target for poachers, and the evasive African shoebill is especially vulnerable for various reasons, including habitat destruction and sale on the black market — issues that are exacerbated by the fact that the birds usually have only one surviving offspring each year.
In 2008, the community took matters into its own hands and formed a grassroots management system. On behalf of the people, the chiefs of six chiefdoms in the area invited African Parks, a not-for-profit organization that manages parks across Africa, to partner with them on the Bangweulu Wetlands Project. The resulting Bangweulu Wetlands Management Board consists of representatives from African Parks, the Zambia Wildlife Authority and the six chiefdoms. Including locals in the collaboration, which has been funded by the World Wildlife Fund – Netherlands and the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Environment Facility, is key, African Parks says, because it allows them to take ownership of the conservation and economic efforts.
Scottish photojournalist Kieran Dodds, who learned about the Bangweulu Wetlands Project through a former zoology professor, says he initially noticed some hesitation on the local people’s part to fully embrace the effort.
“They were suspicious at first, I think, because they were worried their livelihood was going to be taken away from them,” he says. “[There had been] discussions about making these ‘no fishing’ zones, and so they were worried.”
Though he was not working for the project, Dodds says he acted as a sort of ambassador while photographing Bangweulu, trying to explain it to the people he met. They seemed to be receptive, and when economic benefits started to become reality, Dodds says, they became all the more so.
“It wasn’t seen as nature in itself being valuable — ‘There’s a hippo, that’s beautiful,’” he says. “It was much more thinking, ‘If we stop fishing there, we’ll have more fish here and then we can have more of a livelihood.’ In my mind I have this picture of humans sustainably living on the land, and it’s all harmony and it’s glorious. … It wasn’t romantic in that sort of sense.”