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Malawi Scoping Mission Identified Partnership Opportunities with African Parks

Richa Wilson, Intermountain Region Heritage Program Leader (acting)
Intermountain Region, US Forest Service

The Forest Service has an International Programs (IP) office that works in 90 countries. Richa Wilson, Intermountain Region Heritage Program Leader (acting), went to Malawi, in Africa in September, 2016 for an IP scoping mission.

Aerial view of a burnt landscape and a firsh farm in the center An electric fence encloses Liwonde NP (right). Notice how the vegetation outside of the park has been cut or burned (left). The Chikolongo Fish Farm is in the center of the photo.

The purpose of the two-week mission was to identify partnership opportunities with African Parks (AP), a nonprofit organization based in Johannesburg. At the time of trip, AP was managing 10 national parks and wildlife reserves in 7 African countries, including 3 in Malawi. AP began managing its first protected area, the Majete Wildlife Reserve in southern Malawi, in 2003. By that time, most of the animals had been poached and the area suffered from serious encroachment from neighboring villages, human-caused fires, deforestation, corruption, and other problems prevalent at other parks and reserves in Malawi.

It’s easy to be critical of the local population’s actions when interpreting them through the American lens. It’s important, however, to understand them from a Malawian’s point of view. Malawi is one of the poorest countries on earth and, with 18.5 million people, is densely populated. Bush meat is often taken to feed one’s family or to sell on the market for subsistence income. Firewood is gathered to cook food, especially the staple nsima, a thickened maize porridge that is essential to the daily diet of most Malawians. On the other hand, the growing trade in ivory and rhino horns seems to be driven by greed, with many illegal exports headed to Asia.

The head of a baby elephant walking past an open door.Man standing infront of a large pile of metal snakesOur three-person team formally kicked off the mission by meeting with representatives of USAID, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, International Conservation Caucus Foundation, and other stakeholders. We then proceeded northward with Patricio Ndadzela, the country director for AP Malawi, to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, an area that AP began managing in August 2015. This reserve had been extensively poached but was the recent recipient of 261 elephants and other large mammals in an internationally publicized translocation that occurred in July and August 2016. We saw the bomas (corrals) where the newly arrived animals were released, and learned more about Nkhotakota’s challenges. It’s a relatively undeveloped area with few roads, only two tourist lodges, fairly rugged terrain, and tsetse flies. This initial visit served as an important introduction not just to the park, but to African Parks as an organization.

Our next stop was Liwonde National Park, Malawi’s premier spot for wildlife viewing. My first morning there, it was quite thrilling to be awakened before dawn by 3 elephants having breakfast around my tent. Through a series of meetings and site visits, we learned Liwonde NP experiences even more pressure from the surrounding (and growing) population. Following AP’s carrot-and-stick approach, staff is focusing on law enforcement efforts, construction of an electric perimeter fence, and multi-pronged community engagement initiatives.

We proceeded to Majete Wildlife Reserve, a mature park that has recovered under AP’s management over the past 13 years. Poaching is minimal, the “Big 5” animals have been reintroduced, and populations have rebounded enough that Majete can help restock other parks and reserves.

Three buckets hanging with the word, fire on each bucketOur team spent a couple of days in Blantyre, where I had lived for two years in the 1990s while serving in the Peace Corps, for more meetings and to work on our report. We finalized our trip in Lilongwe with a closeout presentation to USAID and US Embassy staff.

AP is doing amazing work and clearly saving some national treasures from complete devastation. They spend large sums of money constructing electric fences to keep elephants in (minimizes conflict with villagers) and poachers out. They also spend a lot on community engagement (a tough task). Most importantly, they have checks and balances to ensure financial accountability and top performance from employees and to minimize corruption.

Man standing infront of maps and charts explaining law enforcement Martin Nawazi explains the surveillance and law enforcement at Majete Wildlife Reserve.

It is rewarding to know the scoping mission paid off in the form of USAID funding for a partnership between USAID, International Programs, and AP Malawi. Initially, the Forest Service will contribute to AP’s efforts in five areas: fire management and training, ecological management, protected area infrastructure design, capacity building for law enforcement, and community engagement and outreach. This arrangement will require the skills and knowledge of additional Forest Service employees in the months and years to come.

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