For Monica Katende, now about to complete her secondary school education, stories of Lions the king of the jungle are all based on folklore.
She and some children in her area of Mitundu in Lilongwe have never seen a live lion, but she has heard stories that the animal belongs to the cat family.
If she has seen a lion it is through the National Geographic Channel which beams footage of species of different wildlife on the planet on television.
“I have not seen a lion in real life, but I learnt about its ecological relevance during my studies.
“One thing that is more familiar to me about lions is that they are predators. That is, they are animals that prey on other animals for their survival in the wild,” Katende, a passionate wildlife follower explains.
Stories like that of Katende and many other children that have not seen a lion or heard one roar is a sharp contrast to five decades ago when lions roamed the Malawi wilderness freely. During the time the cats were more prevalent in most parts of the country’s bushes.
In fact, lions have had a special cultural significance not only in Malawi but across Africa. They enjoy a reputation as ‘king of the beasts’ and are popular symbols of royalty, strength and bravery.
Here in Malawi, they are depicted in both the Government of Malawi’s coat of arms and the Presidential flag.
Lions in crisis
However, lions are in a crisis. Half of all wild lions have been lost in the past 25 years with as few as 20 000 remaining in the whole of Africa.
In the 1960s, lions roamed across the whole of Malawi, but by 2010 the lion range had been reduced to just 13 percent of the country’s land cover.
Conversationalists say habitat loss and fragmentation, prey base depletion, and the illegal trades in bush meat as well as carnivore parts are all driving their decline.
Human versus wildlife conflict is also a major threat to their survival, and the fear of attack is a key concern for communities living close to protected areas.
A new campaign called ‘Mkango, the Pride of Malawi’ to highlight the cultural, economic, and ecological benefits of the species and their landscapes, has gained momentum. Since its launch earlier this year by Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, in partnership with the Lion Recovery Fund and the Department of National Parks & Wildlife (DNPW), there has been remarkable success to save lions.
“For success in the long term, it is critical that we have the support of communities living around these protected areas as well as the general public at large,” said Brighton Kumchedwa, DNPW director.
He said lions are understandably feared as a predator, and therefore education and sensitisation is key. No wonder Lilongwe Wildlife Trust has scaled up outreach activities in schools to raise awareness on the importance of lions in ensuring sustainable and vibrant ecosystems.
“Increased tolerance, pride and respect for Lions will complement DNPW-led interventions to mitigate human-lion conflict and combat the illegal trades of bush meat and carnivore products.
“We remain hopeful that the species can recover here in Malawi. Prides have been re-established in Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve thanks to introductions. A spate of reports in Kasungu, Vwaza, and Nyika are also a beacon of hope in the Malawi-Zambia Trans-Frontier Conservation Area,” he said.
Research conducted by Lilongwe Wildlife Trust showed that communities living around protected areas voice understandable concerns on the threats that lions may pose to people and livestock.
However, there were also strong positive associations for the iconic species, illustrating some of the deep-seated values within Malawian culture that are also reflected elsewhere around the world.
“It was inspiring to listen to the discussions in our focus groups.” remarked Samantha Nampuntha, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust campaigns manager.
Despite the concerns on the dangers lions posed, she says, “there was a general understanding that conflict was rare, that we need to live in harmony with wildlife, and that we all have a role to play as guardians of our natural heritage.”
Bringing back lions
She adds that there is an inherent pride and respect in lions and people want to see them flourish for the benefit of Malawi, as a valuable species within our delicate ecosystems.
These recent sightings have excited the tourism industry, and the lion re-introductions have been an important boost to visitor numbers in those parks.
Wildlife watching is a key contributor to eco-tourism in Africa, representing 80 percent of the total annual sales, and lions are the staple favourite.
Each lion in the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, for example, has been estimated at a value of nearly $19,000 (K15 million) per year in tourism revenue.
Whilst the economic benefits through wildlife tourism are apparent, the ecological value of lions is harder to place a figure on but should not be underplayed.
Lions are the ultimate ‘indicator species’ of healthy intact landscapes, and therefore protecting lions and their habitats is widely seen as a key conservation priority.
Patricio Ndadzela, outgoing African Parks’ Country director, says bringing back lions restores a key species that is critical to the healthy functioning of the natural system.
“Symbolic of the Malawian Government’s commitment to revitalising its parks and wildlife, the recent translocations also contribute to the establishment of a significant national predator population and to the development of sustainable tourism economies to promote local livelihoods and socio-economic growth,” he says.
Lion management plan
The said translocations are all part of the Malawi government’s national lion species management plan. This strategy not only highlights the potential of lions to provide substantial social, cultural, ecological and economic benefits to Malawi but it also points out some of the challenges these iconic species are facing in the country.
For instance, the strategy explains that the reduction in lion populations in Malawi has been attributed to increases in human population which has led to a loss of suitable lion habitats, reduction in prey base and conflicts with people.
The human wildlife conflict aspect more often occurs in the form of indiscriminate killings of lions in defense of life and livestock.
The implementation of the strategy hopes to bring about improved management of lions within Malawi which will enhance tourism appeal to both visitors and investors.
The benefits accrued to Malawi and its people from such an endeavour include job creation, revenue generation for government through taxes, foreign exchange earnings, rural development through the multiplier effect and income generation through entrepreneurship in the form of eco-tourism.
The collaborative efforts of the Malawi Government through DNPW, its supporting partners and the LWT campaign in protecting the preservation of lions and their landscapes has undoubtedly captured the hearts and minds of the general public.
This is apparent from the high attendance of community outreach activities in the Nyika, Kasungu, and Vwaza protected areas, with residents particularly taking a liking to the Mkango Mafumu street theatre performances and film showings.
The urban scene is also buzzing with support for the campaign with over 4 000 downloads for the new Mikango song done by the duo Janta and Tigris.
It is clear that this campaign has sparked the beginning of the journey of restoring Malawi’s pride in lions. It is hoped that through campaigns of this nature children like Katende and all those growing up will have the opportunity to learn more about lion’s ecological importance.
But more important will be the cultural and heritage issues that they are associated with since time immemorial.