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Collaboration to Conservation

Expanding and contracting (Image 1 of 8)

The rise and fall of water in the Bangweulu wetlands — due to rain that seasonally floods 17 surrounding rivers into Lake Bangweulu’s basin and floodplains — creates a unique ecosystem and way of life for the fisher people who live in the area between November and March.

Photo by Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures

Reflections (Image 2 of 8)

Bangweulu earns its name from the visual spectacle of the vast open floodplains — “where the water sky meets the sky.”

Photo by Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures

Temporary housing (Image 3 of 8)

During the wet season, fisher people and their families live in fishing villages peppered across the wetland. “A lot of these people are not necessarily native to that area,” says photographer Kieran Dodds. “They’re fisher people who have come from other towns, and they come there seasonally. It’s just a huge fishery, so they come there for commercial reasons. … They’re not linked to the land in terms of their ancestors.”

Photo by Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures

Searching (Image 4 of 8)

A fisherman searches for fish in the Bangweulu wetlands.

Photo by Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures

Side by side (Image 5 of 8)

Because the Bangweulu wetlands are not a national park, humans live alongside wildlife. The large number of black lechwe in the area is partially due to the lack of large predators, such as lions, which have been wiped out as a result of poaching.

Photo by Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures

Birdhouse (Image 6 of 8)

Home to a remarkably diverse and healthy avian population, the Bangweulu wetlands, according to African Parks, holds more than 10 percent of the world population of wattled cranes.

Photo by Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures

The shoebill project (Image 7 of 8)

In June 2012, a plan was launched by the Bangweulu Wetlands Management Board where local fishermen were assigned to guard shoebill nests. The program oversaw three successfully fledged birds — which may otherwise have been lost to various threats — and two of the birds now have tracking devices, which will provide more information about their habitat.

Photo by Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures

Welcome visitors (Image 8 of 8)

Beyond restoring and protecting wildlife, African Parks says the Bangweulu Wetlands Management Board aims to improve the socioeconomic well-being of the Bangweulu people. Here, a local church group is paid to cut down reeds to create space for a new tourist camp in the wetlands near the Chikuni airstrip.

Photo by Kieran Dodds/Panos Pictures


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.”

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