YALI Voices: Wildlife Forensics in Zambia

As I thought about what exactly to write about my work, my friend said to me, “Give us numbers.” So, here are some scary numbers. In one generation, Zambia lost a species of rhino. When my mother was born in the 1950s, there were an estimated 12,000 black rhinos. In 1993, by the time I was 5 years old, the black rhino was declared extinct as a result of poaching, wildlife trafficking, and a booming market for rhino horn. This is why I am a conservationist, to help prevent the extinction of any species. We are the stewards of this Earth and I believe we are called to protect and preserve it.

Wildlife Forensics and Conservation in Zambia
A DNPW officer collects a DNA sample from a leopard skin seized from a suspect.

I have learnt that anybody can bring their expertise in the fight for wildlife (and the environment in general). Whilst I did study in a field that is targeted at environmental conservation, I am part of a team that includes lawyers, former policemen and journalists, to list but a few. We all share a passion for wildlife conservation and each of us brings our skills to the table.

Wildlife Forensics and Conservation in Zambia
An advertisement for the first Women 4 Conservation get-together last year.

I am blessed to have the opportunity to merge my profession with my personal interest in crime and investigation (I read and watch copious amounts of crime television). I lead a pilot program that will use DNA forensics to better understand and help prevent the illegal trade of the big cats (i.e. lion, leopard, cheetah) in and around Zambia through Wildlife Crime Prevention, in partnership with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife – DNPW, formerly ZAWA (Zambia Wildlife Authority), and the Zambia Carnivore Program, and with funding from the Lion Recovery Fund via the Wildlife Conservation Network. My team and I are collecting data in the form of DNA samples from seized illegal big cat products with different forms of metadata such as completed questionnaires. These samples will then be analysed and compared with already existing reference data of DNA from populations of big cats in Zambia and some other countries in the region. This information will give us some understanding of possible poaching and trafficking hotspots.

I love working in conservation because it is a vast and yet intimate network. We are always looking for ways to work with each other so as not to duplicate but instead complement each other’s work in any given area. One way I have been helping to maintain this culture is through Women 4 Conservation, an initiative started last year by three colleagues and I. W4C brings women (and men who support them) working or interested in conservation together through different networking activities such as meet-and-drink events and nature walks.

By: Bwalya Chibwe. Bwalya Chibwe is a conservationist working in big cat forensics and co-founder of the Women 4 Conservation network in Zambia.
Headshot of Bwalya Chibwe
The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government. YALI Voices is a series of podcasts, videos and blogs contributed by members of the YALI Network.

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