Three years ago, a filmmaker set out to document the attempt to restore a neglected Zambian game reserve and its people. Then he was drawn personally into this holistic approach to conservation, a combination of agriculture and aquaculture, micro-capitalism, female empowerment, primary education, wildlife biology, policing and sustainable hunting, all fueled by creativity, perseverance, generosity, teamwork and one family’s investment.
“When we first arrived here in the Luano, in November 2015, it was like Africa a hundred or two hundred years ago. The people had nothing. They needed our help.”
When the cameras started rolling, back in May 2017, those were the first words spoken by third-generation Zambian professional hunter Alister Norton, now 42. Over the next three years, we documented the Norton family’s efforts to help a diminished people, the Soli, to rise again and to restore their wildlife in a war against poaching. But good, honest efforts often aren’t easy, or even necessarily successful.
Meet the Nortons
At a wildlife conference in Atlanta, in 2016, Roland Norton, Alister’s dad, told me about his family’s attempts to turn around a depleted GMA, Game Management Area, in Zambia. GMA is the Zambian government’s term for a safari hunting area—the Africa with no fences, few roads, fewer people and large populations of game. Roland, at 64 years of age, was about to retire from managing an import/export business tied to Zambian copper mining. He wanted to live his passion for safari, something he had enjoyed for more than 30 years, by becoming a professional hunter and safari operator.
Wildlife and conservation run in the Norton family. Roland’s father, after serving in the Royal Navy on HMS Hood, emigrated to what was then Northern Rhodesia and joined the game department. He helped mark out the country’s first national parks and taught his son the ethics of sustainable hunting. Roland in turn developed a desire to show visiting hunters the now re-christened country of Zambia’s wildlife-rich GMAs, including the Luano, where in the 1980s he had shared a camp and clients with professional hunter A.B. Du Plooy.
Working with the Soli people to revitalize the Lower Luano GMA is a family campaign. Roland’s wife, Anne, and Alister’s wife, Kendal, are in it up to their eyebrows as well. Anne is the de facto CFO, juggling the needs of the day with the reality of the bank balance. Almost always at loggerheads with her men, she keeps everyone grounded. “We always don’t have enough money to pay for all the projects up front, but we have enough coming in to keep things moving forward,” she told me. “Al and I always want to do more, faster,” Roland adds. “As a family, we sit down and discuss the projects, both old and new, to determine our work schedule. Whether it be bore-holes, schools, clinics or scout camps, the final word comes from Anne. It all depends on funds.”
Alister and Kendal have two young children, but Kendal is committed as well—she manages the provisioning and logistics for every part of what has swelled into a massive undertaking.
The Luano: recent history
The Luano GMA lies north of the Zambezi River in the corner where Zambia meets Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It originally encompassed more than 2 million acres and was a haven for wildlife. Rift-valley cliffs formed the northern boundary and held in large populations of plains game as well as rhino and elephant. Sizable herds of Cape buffalo roamed along the meandering Lunsemfwa River. Today, the zone has been split along the river into the Upper Luano GMA and the Lower Luano GMA. The Nortons have contracted with the government of Zambia to operate in the Lower Luano.
Safari hunting closures in the Luano in 1988, 2001 and 2002 led to a vacuum in anti-poaching work. In between, the GMA had a safari operator who took but gave little back. The combination spelled disaster for the local people and the wildlife. Poaching increased exponentially. The bushmeat industry became firmly entrenched, with rhino horn and elephant ivory added bonuses. Entire villages of poachers and their families sprang up where game was concentrated. With Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, just a few hours away by truck, the poachers had a ready market. In the Luano’s central town, Shikabeta, population 2,000, depleted soil and unsustainable farming practices drove people to poaching—one man can set hundreds of snares. Entire species were wiped out locally.
The Soli people, mostly subsistence farmers, have scratched out a living in the Luano Valley for more than 500 years. They belong to the kingdom of Shikabeta and are led by Her Royal Highness Chieftainess Shikabeta. Realizing the plight of her people, she had searched for a new safari operator. But with an official “game depleted” designation, the Lower Luano GMA was unattractive to any business based on hunting. Still, Shikabeta persisted and found her operator: Roland Norton and his family’s nascent Makasa Safaris Zambia.
No licensed safari hunting had occurred in the Luano for almost two decades when the Nortons first reviewed the area, in 2013. They found rich habitat but little game. With the cash Roland had received for his portion of the export/import company, he and Anne calculated they could invest in the Luano for up to three years with no return. Although there were few animals left, Roland’s memories of large and diverse game herds sealed the deal. In 2015, both generations of the Norton family began a herculean task: to restore the Luano’s wildlife and simultaneously help the local people get their feet back under them. They knew that one could not happen without the other.
Several issues had to be addressed immediately. First, the crops were failing, and children were dying of starvation. Even before funding the initial infrastructure projects they’d agreed on with the community, the Nortons bought and distributed mielie-meal. Alister said, “Look, we couldn’t just tell these people they could no longer go out and set snares to feed their families. They’d say, ‘Then you feed me!’ So we did. And we came up with an alternative protein source, too.”
The Nortons built a fish farm—six 30,000-gallon above-ground tanks for tilapia and barbel, both native species. Since there was no electricity, they had to install a solar system to generate power for air compressors to keep the fish alive. It was inefficient, but the farm enabled them to provide protein, at cost, to the villagers. Any surplus fish would be sold in Lusaka. The goal was for the farm to expand enough to cover future expenses, including anti-poaching work.
November 2015 saw the Soli begin to rise again. Eventually, more than 60 people were hired at the fish farm; among other things, this helped the local economy begin to swing from bartering to cash and from subsistence poaching to raising or buying food.
Villages in the Lower Luano are spread out along about 120 kilometres (75 miles) of gravel track extending north from the Great East Road, the main conduit between Lusaka and Malawi, to the Lunsemfwa River. Only two of these villages have government primary and secondary schools. Many children had to walk as far as 15 kilometres, 9 miles, each way to class. “Most of them never attended [school] before our arrival,” Anne Norton said. A few went to open-air, thatch-roof bush schools with unpaid teachers who were not formally taught themselves. But without real education, including learning to speak English, children would continue the downward spiral into poverty and bare subsistence, which often included poaching.
In May 2017, my film company shared some of our initial video footage from the Luano with a US-based NGO called ACS, African Children’s Schools. We also struck a deal with the Nortons: We would help find funding for some of the infrastructure projects—schools, clinics and churches—they had agreed to build, but every dollar we found would have to be matched by a dollar for anti-poaching efforts.
Within a week of the initial WhatsApp call between us, the Nortons and ACS, half the money to build three classrooms was in hand. Thus began the construction of hard-sided schools with desks, uniforms and proper supplies. ACS also committed to covering teachers’ salaries. To date, five new classrooms in three new schools have been built. One school, Nygentiki, includes a residence for two teachers. Children are learning not only English, arithmetic and science, but also wildlife conservation and how to minimize wildlife-human conflict.
In both 2018 and 2020, more than 400 school uniforms arrived, paid for by ACS. “I said, ‘praise God!’” said Nygentiki schoolteacher Mutinta Michelo. “I told the parents, when you see your children come home in new uniforms, understand they came from Makasa Safaris [the Nortons] and help from people from abroad [ACS] who care.”
Clinics & transportation
Only two medical clinics staffed by government nurses provided care for almost 5,000 people spread out over the entire Lower Luano GMA—more than 1.2 million acres, or 486,000 hectares. Few in these scattered villages have motor vehicles and most children were not immunized. The Soli suffered rampant malaria, HIV/AIDS and trypanosomiasis, sleeping sickness—illnesses that block the upward movement out of poverty for many families. The loss of the male head of a household to disease often removes the primary financial support, leaving families of two or even three wives and more than 10 children.
The Nortons organized transport to bring the nurses to each village, once a month, with medicines and vaccinations. Roland said, “The children need proper medical care. We need a 100% buy-in by the entire community. As they see our commitment, overseen by Chieftainess Shikabeta, we can create real partnerships.”
On day one, the Nortons learned—among other things—that there was no way to transport surplus crops, if any, to market. On day two, they identified poor farming practices that led to consistent crop failures. “Each year [farmers] would save some seed and use it the next season. Unfortunately, their seed quality had deteriorated. Add substandard soil, little fertilizer and unpredictable rains, and many farmers had a tough go of it,” Roland said.
He visited a supplier in Lusaka to ask for a sample of high-quality maize seed to show to Soli farmers. The sample, he was told, would be ready in a week. When Roland returned, the office secretary said it was waiting on the loading dock. There, an employee pointed it out—an entire pallet of top-quality maize seed.
I didn’t order a pallet, Roland said; the villagers can’t afford this! But it was a gift from the seed company—the owners were moved by the efforts to help the community.
Around this time, the government of Zambia began to offer farmers low-cost basic packages of seed, urea and fertilizer. But the money ran out and the program never made it to the people of the Lower Luano, who only learned they would not receive these packages just as the planting season was beginning. Since the donated pallet of seed could only go so far, the Nortons created a private version of the government plan. They bought and trucked in the materials and provided it to farmers at cost.
But raising good crops here still isn’t simple. Dominque Tombo, a subsistence farmer along the confluence of the Lunsemfwa and Lukusashi Rivers, told me, “I plant for my family maize. I plant one-third for my family. I plant for one-third for weather or drought or army worms. I plant one-third for the baboons who come and eat.”
Old fishing nets and thornbush fences ring his fields. Once the maize has reached maturity, two or three of his eight children sit in machans, platforms eight or 10 feet off the ground, to watch for baboons. A small fire burns below each platform, to protect against lions. (A few pockets of plains game had survived the onslaught of poaching, evidently enough to support a small resident pride of lions.) And kids as young as 5 sit out all night with stout poles to ward off hippos that come from the river to raid the crops.
After the gift of a pallet of seed corn, Roland got a call from a friend who owns a Honda motorcycle dealership in Lusaka. He had taken delivery of six off-brand dirt bikes. The Honda district manager gave him an ultimatum: Get rid of the bikes or lose the franchise. The dealer gave all six bikes to the Luano project, where they’re now used by anti-poaching game scouts.
It takes 30 bags of maize to feed a family of 10 for a year in the Luano. Since farming is never a sure thing, some families resort to selling daughters who have reached puberty and can have children. Some are only 12 years old. The buyers are typically men of 30 to 45 years; many already have one or more wives and children. With a life expectancy of around 45-50 years for men in the bush, these young wives, now with five or six of their own children, are often left to fend for themselves when their husbands die.
The price of such a daughter? Usually about 30 bags of maize.
The Luano offers a host of natural perils, too. For many people, the Lunsemfwa River is the main source of water. In 2016, Godfrey Mwiba, the chief game scout based at the fish farm, received a radio call no parent wants to hear: His 11-year-old daughter had been taken by a crocodile.
“We were cleaning our dishes at the edge of the river. Then I heard a splash and scream. I couldn’t believe it. A crocodile grabbed my daughter,” said Godfrey’s wife Louise.
Godfrey arrived with a boat, extra staff and a Kalashnikov rifle. They found his daughter face-down in the water with the crocodile alongside. The croc charged the boat. They killed it with the rifle. Godfrey jumped into the water and retrieved his daughter’s body. When they dragged the croc from the river, they saw that it was completely emaciated—nothing but skin, teeth and bones. A snare around its neck had cut in so deeply that it blocked food passage down its esophagus. Starving, the croc was looking for an easy meal.
“Poachers killed my daughter,” said Godfrey—the snare had led to his daughter’s death. It was another reminder of how poaching affects every thread of life in the Luano.
Wire snares kill indiscriminately. It’s not uncommon in the Lower Luano to see baboons or warthogs that are missing a hand or hoof, or to find the tracks of a maimed leopard. They are the lucky ones who escaped the slow death of a snare.
Roland Norton says, “When a male antelope, with horns, pokes his head into a snare, almost always the horn will make contact with the wire, creating a sound not heard in nature. The antelope stops and backs away, out of the snare. The young ones and the females, without the horns, aren’t so lucky. When they feel the wire around their necks, their flight instinct kicks in. Almost always they’re caught and die in the snare.”