To conservationists, Majete Wildlife Reserve in Chikwawa offers numerous lessons on how to protect wildlife and tourist attractions .
Two decades ago, the vast woodland on the banks of the Shire River had almost no wildlife except few antelopes.
In the 1970s, rhinos had been poached out, followed by elephants in the 1990s. By 2003, tourists had stopped trekking to Majete where 12 scouts patrolled nearly empty jungles.
Not any longer.
Today, Majete offers tourists stunning sights of the Big Five-elephants, rhinos, buffalos, lions and leopards-thanks to African Park’s 25-year concession to manage the State-owned wildlife reserve. African Parks also manages Liwonde National Park and Nkhotakota Game Reserve.
At Majete, the South African conservation firm reintroduced black rhinos in 2003, elephants in 2006 and lions in 2012.
Country director Patricio Ndadzera says African Parks is restocking its parks to create a conservation product that attracts tourists.
“Conservation without creating a conservation product, and the lack of financing, is what we have been doing in this country. We have been talking about conservation without creating a tourism product,” he says.
In 2017, Malawi hogged headlines globally when African Parks moved 520 elephants from Majete and Liwonde to Nkhotakota in the world’s largest elephant translocation in history.
African Parks has also brought cheetahs to Liwonde.
The newly introduced animals in Majete, Nkhotakota and Liwonde are caged in “islands of safety” circled by 7 000-volt electric fences.
“These activities create a product that attracts tourism. This brings in financial resources, including foreign currency. That’s because the park becomes a product,” says Ndadzera.
The revamped wildlife also benefits surrounding communities economically.
African Parks has invested in school blocks, scholarships, clinics and small-scale business that are putting money in pockets of locals who were formerly poaching and producing charcoal in the park.
The firm has invested over $1 million in developing people living near the parks, says Ndadzera. Owing to these benefits, people are participating in conserving wildlife instead of felling trees and poaching.
“The translocation exercise and other socio-economic projects have made national parks epicentres for socio-economic development. People are now doing beekeeping in the park in Majete,” he says.
African Parks is running several other projects with the Hunger Project Malawi to reduce hunger and poverty in families surrounding wildlife reserves.
“Just last year, we spent over K600 million in Nkhotakota Game Reserve, which actually had nothing. But we wanted to develop it. Protecting the park does not come alone. It comes with socio-economic developments for the people,” he says.
Department of National Parks and Wildlife director Brighton Kumchedwa commended the power of public-private partnerships in wildlife management and boosting tourism.
“Conservation is very expensive. To do it on our own, when government has many pressing needs, is a big challenge. The coming in of the private sector has changed so many things,” he explains.
He reckons the replenishment of endangered species and community investment proves companies like Africa Parks have the financial muscle to improve wildlife management.
“The coming in of African Parks has generally improved wildlife management. For example, in Liwonde, security has greatly improved. Nkhotakota Game Reserve is on its way up and Majete, I would say, is the best practice,” he says.
Majete has not lost a single elephant to poaching in the past five years.
In 2017, Parliament passed amendments of the Parks and Wildlife Act.
Kumchedwa said the law reform has been a game changer.
He narrates: “Prior to 2013, you could hardly get a wildlife criminal sentenced to go to jail. It was a small fine of $40 maximum. Now, the law prescribes stiffer penalties, for example, a jail term of 30 years with no option of fine if one is convicted of poaching protected species like elephants and rhinos. We have seen this happening. This is an achievement in a case where it never happened.”
Last year, Lilongwe Magistrate’s Court sentenced Jafali Gunde to 18 years’ imprisonment for illegal possession of ivory. This is the highest penalty for wildlife crimes.
“This is historic. I would say the amended Act continues to be used by the Judiciary to give deterrent punishments to wildlife criminals. This is also another success story,” says Kumchedwa.
Such interventions do not only make the country a safe haven for wildlife, but also an emerging destination for tourists.
Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism Francis Kasaila says the improved conditions and restoration of wildlife in protected areas has enhanced their attractiveness to tourists and investors.
“Malawi is now becoming known for taking the lead in conservation initiatives as much as it is for its cultural diversity, friendly people and stunning Lake Malawi. These exciting developments are also helping to transform the visitor experience in Malawi,” he says.