By Andrew Crichton, EPI Foundation Head of Operations.
Andrew Crichton in Jamba
I stood on the edge of a vast, sun-drenched plain, excitement and trepidation coursing through my veins. I was about to embark on an extraordinary journey, which would take me to a place that very few outsiders have ever visited – Jamba, in the south-eastern reaches of Angola. It's a place where hope, determination, the suffering of war, and the age-old conflict between elephants and humans are etched into the very landscape.
Our mission was clear: my colleague Jose Agostinho and I, in collaboration with the HALO Trust, were tasked with delivering a modified shipping container to the dedicated rangers stationed within the remote Luengue-Luiana National Park. This container would serve as a secure vault for the ivory and other wildlife products that had been recovered and seized within the park – an essential tool in the relentless fight against the illegal wildlife trade, which has plagued this region, much like it has many parts of Africa.
Our journey to Luengue-Luiana was nothing short of epic. For five grueling days, we traversed the unforgiving terrain of Cuando Cubango province. From dusk until dawn, we journeyed over what were generously marked on my map as "roads" but were, in truth, nothing more than rock-strewn tracks. We traversed dense bush, deep rutted sand, and vast floodplains. All the while, our eyes scanned the horizon, hoping for even the faintest sign of the vast herds of majestic elephants which once roamed this landscape.
However, the scars of decades-long civil war, and the tragic legacy of landmines scattered throughout the region, have taken a heavy toll on Angola's elephants. Their numbers have dwindled, and they’ve had to learn how to navigate a world fraught with danger. Lured by the relative safety of neighboring Namibia and Botswana, many have migrated away from their ancestral lands.
What we did find, though, were subtle clues that hinted at the presence of these magnificent creatures. Tracks in the soft sand, perfectly etched by massive feet, told stories of elephants that had ventured back to their homeland. Newly-broken branches scattered across our path, and the unmistakable scent of fresh dung served as a reminder that the giants of Cuanda Cubango are starting to return to these parts, even if they remain elusive.
Elephant bones in a minefield in Cuito Cuanavale, Kuando Kubango Province, Angola
The recent survey of elephants in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which connects Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, gives further grounds for encouragement. KAZA’s elephant population, estimated to be more than 220,000 is- by far- Africa’s largest. The survey suggested that not only is this population stable, but numbers of elephants specifically in Angola are actually increasing.
Our delivery of the container was highly significant. The container is not only a secure storage facility for seized ivory and wildlife products, it is also a symbol of hope. It represents the international community's unwavering solidarity with Angola as it attempts to preserve its natural heritage. This container, with its metal and bolts, was more than an object; it was a promise – a promise that we stand shoulder to shoulder with Angola in the fight against illegal wildlife trade.
Through the collective efforts of organizations like the EPI Foundation and the HALO Trust, alongside the dedication of local park rangers, Luengue-Luiana National Park is beginning to emerge from the shadows. While it may take years for elephants to return in large numbers, their enduring memory of the land that was once their home is a powerful force that cannot be underestimated.
Jose Agostinho (far left), with the team that successfully delivered the secure container to Luengue-Luiana National Park
As the sun sets on this remote corner of Angola, it bathes the landscape in a warm, golden glow. I like to imagine it is illuminating the footsteps of elephants yet to come. This is a story about the indomitable spirit of nature and the power of human determination in the face of adversity. Together, we can write the next chapter in the story of elephant conservation in Angola, one that is filled with hope, resilience, and the beauty of these majestic animals.