A New Chapter for Kasanka National Park
The Kasanka Trust is tasked with managing Kasanka National Park, the Kafinda GMA, Shoebill Island Camp and Lavushi Manda National Park, products which have always thrived on offering something “off the beaten track.” Kasanka’s charm is subtle and requires courtship to reveal. Lower densities of the more charismatic ‘big and scaries’ means that Kasanka and Shoebill have always relied on ‘twitchers’ and true wilderness lovers to bolster its tourism. The major highlight being the extraordinary arrival each year of 10 million fruit bats to delight viewers for barely 100 days each year against a backdrop of early summer storms and arriving migrant birds.
As a non-profit organisation, Kasanka Trust has always existed through an awkward dance of tourism and donor funding. The moves are choreographed by the 6 committed board members and require the support of a passionate and dedicated management team and staff to perform in a remote, yet stunning floor of pure Africa. Unlike many private reserves ‘down south’ that attract the haute couture of the travel industry, no fences define and protect Kasanka or Lavushi Manda National Park. Tribes and villages live outside a bountiful supply of natural fodder and watch as their brothers and families defend what would appear to be imaginary lines as yet another of their crops fails.
2015 by most people in sub-Saharan Africa’s standards was grim and to be in conservation in Zambia during 2015 was like treading wet concrete. The economy and nature had contrived to begin a public and scandalous affair and drought wrung the water from the land while the Kwacha dripped away and Zambia sat in darkness.
Kasanka’s challenges were increased as 2014 had seen the global media’s infatuation with Ebola peak with ‘experts’ predicting a certain and unstoppable spread of the disease right across the continent of Africa. Furthermore, the straw coloured fruit bat was unfairly fingered as persona non grata in the spread of ebola and the Kasanka story had taken a hard turn.
By winter 2015, the inexhaustible flow of external pressures was sucking the life and finances out of the organisation. In the world of attracting corporate sponsorship and donor funding, the reality is bats, birds and buck don’t have the same sex appeal in the PR department as throwing your money behind camo-clad professionals defending rhino in South Africa or elephant in Central Africa.
Wildman Safaris became aware of the Kasanka situation through a social media post and we understood intuitively the challenges faced by a small, financially constrained organisation trying to maximise and manage a wilderness. Venues like Kasanka need to communicate effectively with existing and potential clients from remote and temperamental connection points. If the aforementioned weren’t enough, they still need to compete with the endless variety of safari options – many backed by corporate investors with marketing budgets that rival Obama’s. From our point of view, considering the abundance of beauty and splendour Kasanka had to offer – we couldn’t ask for a better wilderness to get involved with!
Our work with our other safari lodges and camps in Zambia had already revealed through client reviews and occupancies how effective the people on the ground can be if they are freed to do what they are good at. Our job is to remind the rest of the world just how incredible these hidden wildernesses are and that they too, are worthy of the traveller’s time!
Kasanka Trust and Wildman Safaris finalized a ‘turn-around’ plan which needed to be simple if it was to be effective. A renewed focus was adopted highlighting the number of incredible aspects of Kasanka National Park and Shoebill Island Camp. It was agreed the latter was to be left open during Bat Season for the first time in a few years and a complete overhaul of the Kasanka brand began. We posted a goal of bringing in USD 100,000 into the various camps and products and contacted all potential enquiries and bookings before it was too late for the season. The enquiries that came in were viewed like life boats bobbing out at sea and we clung to them to keep afloat. Provisional bookings became the scaffoldings we used to build our rescue plan and the group bookings from some of our loyal South Luangwa ground handlers stuck out in our calendar like lighthouses in a storm.
Donna, with great photos from Chris Meyer and inside knowledge from Bastiaan, put together a website that finally did justice to the beauty and intrigue that is Kasanka National Park and added a new home on the World Wide Web for Shoebill Island Camp. Her timing in going live with the new site couldn’t have been better either. Within a week, we began to see a response from the public with increases in enquiries of between 150 – 250%. Friends and clients, both foreign and domestic were clearly thinking of those breath-taking minutes when the colour of the skies resemble a well bled wine over granite and the air shrills with the sound of 10 million moving mammals.
The Board of the Kasanka Trust continued to put in the work behind the scenes and proved that major organisations still had faith in Kasanka by securing a $25,000 grant from US Fish & Wildlife Service. They also followed up on Bastiaan’s introduction to two special ladies who would join Chris in ‘manning the fort’ for Bat Season.
Aysan brought her treasury of skills in hospitality and guest relations to help with hosting. She would need to delight in the animated accounts of people’s bat experience – morning after morning, night after night as if she was hearing of this event for the first time, every time.
Joining Aysan would be the sparkling Chrissie whose passion for the outdoors and wildlife and experience in the Far East saw her being awarded responsibility for our Japanese film crew. She would be required to unwrap the wildlife mysteries of Kasanka and the Bat migration through her knowledge, enthusiasm and love for bush.
By October, Kasanka had launched a ‘turn-around’ and started the 2015 Bat Season saying, “We are still here and we have some amazing wildlife and birding to offer you!” The question was: ‘what would the public’s response be?’
Perhaps the first people to hear ‘our shout’ were our friends from Gen TV in Japan. Their decision to film the famous Bat Migration for 45 days kick-started the momentum shift for the Kasanka Trust and their commitment to capturing Kasanka will forever be etched into the Kasanka story. It was not the ‘saving grace’ but confirmation that a new day in Kasanka’s story was dawning.
So the temperatures climbed and the days lengthened and Kasanka looked to the sky – watching for the heavy beat of skinned wings to start arriving. The silhouettes at sunset that float above the famous forest. That tiny patch of mushitu swamp forest that attracts and supports in excess of 10 million straw coloured fruit bats at its peak every year. These bats journey from all over Africa leaving mysterious and war torn forests many miles to the north of Zambia to return the hope that Kasanka gives them. They would have left these trees up north, as they do every year, fully expectant to arrive back home to ‘their forest.’ The thought that perhaps Kasanka had caved to the pressures, that the timber had fallen to the hand axe, that the fruit trees had withered in fire or been felled for maize fields would never had entered their minds! Kasanka waited and frenzied in last minute preparations and on the 13th of October, the 2015 Bat Season began!
Ecologists estimate that first bats arrived in a group of about 100. Yet only 10 days later, that number had swelled to 150’000 and 6 days later, we were into the millions! The numbers would continue to multiply until reaching a peak at just over 10 million bats by mid November.
As the bats started to fill the sky, so the public continued to respond. Enquiries pinged into the inboxes, the vehicles arrived and the rooms filled. The booking schedule which had previously resembled a middle class pantry at month end now started to fill and campsites that hadn’t seen a vehicle in months started to prepare for visitors.
Chris had been at the forefront of so many of Kasanka’s battles through the year now had the job of mobilising his team for the main show. When the chips had been well and truly down, he held the ship together. While the bats whirled and wowed twice a day, there were mouths to feed, rooms to clean, vehicles to repair and guests to entertain. The days began at 03.00am each morning for guests to be ready to be in the Bat Forest before first light. They didn’t end until the whiskies and gins tinkled into glasses late in the evenings. Gas shortages put strain on fridges and freezers and malaria slowly but surely laid key individuals low for days at a time, stretching the team further. Yet still more bookings rolled in and still the staff performed.
But then, as if on cue, the rest of the Kasanka inhabitants realised that the time to shine had dawned and they joined the ‘turn around.’ Sitatunga boldly grazed in front of the busy Pontoon campsites and even began to appear on the shores of Lake Wasa, in full view of guests. The lake’s fish eagles – perhaps inspired by the swooping and snaring of the bats performed by the crowned and martial eagles in the forest – launched aerial raids on flocks of white-faced ducks as guests watched, coffee in hand. Elephants and sable – two of Kasanka’s larger and more sought after mammals – appeared around Lake Wasa in broad daylight on numerous occasions as if to join the festival of life.
Against this backdrop of wildlife beauty and teamwork that the first bits of feedback from clients started to filter through. Enthralled guests described their wonder at the bats and their appreciation at the efforts of the staff. The income target came and went. Incredible photographic moments began to come back from our little wilderness. Word started returning from people across many nations about a little park that was offering something truly worth describing as “bucket-list.”
The ‘turn around’ was well and truly underway and it was thanks to the actions and interests of our visitors that Kasanka was writing a new chapter! Thanks to our loyal agents who had convinced their clients that there was something special to experience in this little corner of Zambia. Thanks to our local farmers, teachers, ambassadors, diplomats, businessmen and women and many more who drove the long roads into Kasanka, the Park lives on.
It wasn’t always pretty and it was by no means perfect – far from it! We know as marketing we have improvements to make to ensure better information on a booking gets to our agents and travellers quicker. New managers, Dion and Tigger Scott are breathing new life into the staff, lodges and the reserve and have plans to raise our accommodation and service standards in line with the experience the Park’s birding and wildlife offer. Exciting new specials and trips are on the way to excite our visitors. We also understand the need to improve the value for money of an experience. But for those who felt their room, or their lunch or their package didn’t meet the price tag you paid, know this: It funded and drove a National Park. When the 28” sitatunga bull was poached, your funds drove on the scout who arrested the poachers. When raging bush fires started by poachers threatened the Bat Forest, your bookings funded the teams that fought back the flames. When the African climate claimed bridges and roads, your funds got them back into operation so visitors and scouts alike could continue to protect and delight in this wilderness. It was all thanks to you and we have listened to the feedback on where to improve!
So 2016 begins and we are moving steadily to the next stage of the ‘Kasanka turn-around.’ Fresh approaches and renewed passion are going to meet a pristine and unspoilt wilderness and we all look forward to good things. As for the bats – well the last 50 or so left a few days ago. They know nothing of the 2015 year that had transpired since they last roosted in the wooden sentinels of the ‘Bat Forest’ in 2014. They had trusted the trees would be there and once again, thanks to the support of the travel community, the team behind Kasanka had not let them down. And we don’t plan to this year either!