After an hour and some minutes on the Blantyre to Chikwawa Road, we arrived at Majete Wildlife Reserve on September 21 2017, a reserve with an unlikely story of resurgence and restoration.
We unpacked the little luggage that we had and jumped off the back of the Majete cruiser, the unforgiving Chikwawa scorch heat was in full throttle. We were welcomed by the warm smiles and hands of their manager and a group of game rangers.
At this point, I did not expect much, I was too busy dusting myself off and so was every journalist in the group. The reserve is a few miles north of Chikwawa Boma and the road is dusty and bumpy.
As we waited for the Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining AggreyMasi to arrive so we could tour the reserve for free and save the K18 000 that they charge per head in the open Toyota Land cruiser, the first timers and the few inquisitive of us started to ask questions to whoever could provide answers while others looked for a shade and water to escape the 11 o’clock heat and mend their dry throats.
In our quest to find answers, we were told the amazing story of the reserve’s resurgence from a near empty forest devoid of most wildlife apart from a few antelopes, to a Big Five reserve after African Parks (AP) took over management from the Department of Parks and Wildlife in 2003.
AP runs 11 parks in eight countries and is eyeing 20 more in 2020. They are directly responsible for replenishing Rhino’s which were poached out of the reserve in the 1970’s, the last elephant was killed in 1992 while predators and their prey were gone by the time they took over.
Before the takeover, illegal loggers were rampant and charcoal production was booming. By year 2000, the tourist that used to flock to Majete vanished with their dollars as they was little to gaze upon for the enthusiast game lovers. The three years to 2003 were gloomy and ironically, the wildlife reserve had little or no wildlife in its reserve.
But where the ordinary eye saw a forest yearning for life, AP saw potential, a rising tide that could lift all boats.
On March 28 2003, AP and the Malawi government entered into a 25-year Public Private Partnership (PPP) that allowed the company to take over rehabilitation, management and development of the reserve.
As we learned, the journey was not all unicorns and rainbows, but through expertise and hard work, the biological communities of flora and fauna have found a safe haven in a place that almost sunk to oblivion.
The journey into a Big Five began when black rhinos were brought back in 2003, elephants followed in 2006 and lions in 2012. From the beginning, the reserve now owns 100 percent of the country’s rhinos and 90 percent of the elephants.
After the history lessons, we turned our attention to the road and joined those waiting for the minister, our eyes stuck to the dusty gravel road until his arrival.
He looked as eager as most of us for the tour, but unlike us, he made his intentions known to the management during his short briefing.
With the country director of AP PatricioNdadzera now aware of the minister’s intentions, it was just a matter of time before we boarded the open Toyota Landcruiser into the safari.
I sighed deeply and slouched back on my seat as the nine-seater landcruiser finally passed through the open electric gate.
The minister’s visit to Majete Wildlife Reserve was part of a series of his familiarisation tours and due to his congested schedule, the usually two to three-hour drive in the park was cut to an hour.
Despite being short, the drive was a success as we managed to appreciate the beautiful natural resources that are thriving in the 700-square kilometre reserve.
With 12 200 animals flourishing in the park, the chances of not seeing a wildlife in the reserve are close to zero. We saw scores of beautiful lean impalas, nyalas, waterbucks, ugly warthogs, hippos, and of course, giant elephants.
Craig Hay is the park manager and he is optimistic the reserve will keep getting better and better, a projection he derives from the status quo of the animal’s health.
He says they plan on investing K24 million in the next five years on Majete, Liwonde and Nkhotakota reserves to improve fencing, infrastructure and restocking.
“In almost a decade, between 2003 and 2012, we only had 2 500 individual animals reintroduced to the park and they have increased to 12 200 animals, this shows that we have a healthy animal population that is well protected.
The increase in the animal population seems to be the catalyst for attracting tourist to Majete, with 2016 recording a significant 10 percent increase from 2015.
“Majete is now a fantastic place to visit, we now have over 8 000 tourists visiting us yearly and the numbers keep on increasing, last year alone we collected revenue in excess of $400 000 (about K292 million) which all goes to the management of the park, but we are still dependent on donor funding to cover the deficit, something we hope will change soon.
“Majete is the only big five destination in Malawi, our visitors have the chance to see lions, buffalo’s, leopards, rhino’s, elephants as they enjoy various services including the food offered by our partner and a premier hospitality institution Sunbird hotel,” he said.
The reserve which had 12 000 untrained rangers protecting a depleted reserve back then, now has 35 000 well trained rangers. The upgrade in law enforcement as well as infrastructure development and road work has seen employment rise more than 10-fold with 140 people being employed on a permanent basis.
He who said a chain is no stronger than its weakest leak was a wise being, the effective law enforcement at Majete coupled with close community engagement has resulted in a significant decrease in poaching incidents, with not a single rhino or elephant poached since 2003.
Such growth and such mastery of conserving natural resources delights Masi and in his remarks, he commended AP on a job well done.
He said this is important as it will ensure the government inherits a well-established park after the agreed 25 years.
He was also quick to point out that there is a lot more that needs to be done to ensure that Majete continues to thrive.
“I am aware that the department of parks and wildlife is facing challenges in curbing wildlife crime, but there are several measures in place to ensure that we address this challenge.
The department through the ministry has in recent years ensured the review of the national parks and wildlife act which became law in January 2017, the review of the national wildlife policy and the establishment of a wildlife crimes investigations unit, all this was done to ensure that the fines and other penalties are punitive enough.
“Protected areas like Majete have shown potential of contributing significantly to socio-economic development of our country and more importantly, to the communities living adjacent to the parks, it is for this reason that the government is committed to conserving wildlife in the country,” he remarked.
In 14 years, Majete has transformed into Malawi’s premier wildlife destination, the animal population at the reserve has grown so much that they recently translocated over 200 elephants and other animals to other reserves in the real life noah’s ark story which saw a total of 500 elephants and 1 117 other game species translocated.