MALAWI: April 2018

“The translocation programme started in 2015, when African Parks took over Nkhotakota and Liwonde,” says Marnet Ngosi, education officer for African Parks, as she talks me through the largest transfer of elephants to a single reserve ever undertaken.

Dubbed ‘500 Elephants’, the initiative saw the conservation NGO African Parks, together with Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife, move more than 500 elephants to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in the north from Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve, some 350km to the south. In addition, some 1500 other animals – including buffalo, eland, impala, kudu, zebra, hartebeest, waterbuck, sable and warthog – were also habituated.

Majete was the first Malawian reserve to benefit from the NGO’s involvement in conservation in the country.

“[We] took over Majete in 2003 and restocked its elephants locally, from Mangochi, while the lions and rhinos came from South Africa,” says Marnet, resplendent in her African Parks’ shirt and baseball cap.

It is an association that has prevented any elephants from being poached in the reserve since their reintroduction in 2006; likewise no rhino has been killed since they were reintroduced in 2003.

The benefits of the recent translocation project are twofold: first, Liwonde and Majete had both reached their elephant capacity – the parks, and consequently the food supply, not large enough to sustain their bulging pachyderm populations; and, second, the likes of Nkhotakota and Nyika have seen their elephants poached to near extinction. Before African Parks’ intervention Nkhotakota’s tusker population had plummeted from more than 1500 20 years ago to fewer than 100.

Population restoration

“So, the thinking was to relocate the wildlife,” explains Marnet. “The vision is to restore the population in Nkhotakota to 2000. There is lots of food and water [for them] there.”

But before African Parks could start to move the elephants, a lot of groundwork needed to be completed.

“The few elephants that were left in Nkhotakota were causing trouble [destroying crops in the nearby villages], so we started erecting fences,” explains Marnet. “This is being done in phases. In the first phase we created a 19,000ha (190 sq km) sanctuary in which the 500 translocated elephants have been placed.”

The next phase is to fence the whole park. With Nkhotakota covering some 1800 sq km, this is no mean task. Once completed, the fencing around the sanctuary will be taken down and the ‘new’ tuskers integrated into the rest of the reserve.

The translocation itself was also completed over two phases. “In 2016, 261 elephants, mainly form Liwonde and a few from Majete, were transferred,” says Marnet. “Then in 2017 a further 225 from Liwonde and Majete were moved to Nkhotakota, plus 34 were moved to Nyika National Park from Liwonde.”

Next on African Parks’ agenda is the reintroduction of cheetah into Liwonde, she adds.

The work being undertaken to restore Malawi’s wildlife to its former glories, and beyond, is being welcomed across all sections of the country’s society – the animals are the lifeblood of a safari destination after all.

But it is not just the lodge owners and tour operators who benefit, the knock-on effects for local communities are valuable too: it provides employment, regular incomes, preserves a future for subsequent generations and offers an alternative way of life to poaching, which in turn protects the wildlife – completing the circle.

“African Parks is doing an amazing job with the relocation programme,” says James Lightfoot, co-owner of Kaya Mawa resort on Likoma Island. “In 25 years time it will be up there – back to how it was.”  Although the island, in the middle of Lake Malawi, may not benefit directly from the project, indirectly it will – with more visitors being drawn to the central African nation, looking to combine some top-quality game viewing with a week or so on the beach.

There is, of course, the ubiquitous cliché of the double-edged sword that comes with increased footfall. “It would be better if the wildlife was allowed to repopulate without tourism development,” James adds.

Tionge Kalanga, sales and marketing officer for Tongole Wilderness Lodge in Nkhotakota, confirms that there are plans afoot to introduce lion to the reserve  – an exciting prospect, and one that will see the reserve on the way to establishing itself as a Big Five option. But key to repopulation is removing any potential human-wildlife conflict. While asserting that poaching {in Nkhotakota] is largely under control, Tionge believes it is important to continue the momentum through education. “We are building an education centre to teach the local people about conservation and the reserve,” she says.

A happy time

Walking through Nkhotakota’s miombo forest with Happy Banda is an eye-opener. Happy is a scout in one of four teams of African Parks’ rangers who patrol the reserve, protecting its wildlife from poachers.

“We go out in groups of four, for four days at a time,” he explains. “We typically cover 8km a day.”

This doesn’t sound like a lot, but the going is tough. “It is difficult because of the dense vegetation. It is [as a result] difficult to see the animals, so we rely on hearing and smell.”

The team camps out in the bush, having to carry everything they need for the four days on their backs. As well as the physical strain, the mental side is also a factor, with the band of brothers having to be constantly on alert.

They walk in single file, each helping to provide a 360-degree view of the terrain they are travelling through. “One looks front, one looks back, one left and one right,” says the 27-year-old, who has worked in the park for three years. In all, he says, the reserve provides jobs for some 300 people.

It may be hard yakka, but the work is vital and the results are there for all to see.

“We caught three poachers fishing last month,” says Happy, proudly. It is illegal to remove any fish from the reserve’s lifeblood – the Bua River.

There is a flipside to such a mammoth project, however. The sudden increase in Nkhotakota’s elephant population is having a destructive effect on the reserve’s forest, as the newly arrived tuskers trample through the bush and consume vast quantities of vegetation.

The newbies are also proving quite hostile, unsettled by their move north. It is thought that it could take a generation before the immigrants are assimilated. But guide Emmanuel Kandeiro is wary that the original transferees’ offspring will remain just as grumpy as their parents, through learned behaviour.

Back in Tongole’s bar, though, barman Lucas Samson reiterates the benefits that the translocation programme is having.

“[The local community is] happy with the park because they have jobs and can sell crops to the lodge,” Lucas explains, adding that all of Tongole’s staff come from the nearby village.

He tells me he has seen a “big change”, with there being “hardly any animals” prior to African Parks’ intervention. As a result, he adds, “more people are coming [to visit]”.

He shows me a captured poacher’s boat, a sizeable, single, hollowed-out piece of ironwood that hangs in the dining area as a poignant reminder of the park’s traumatic history – as well as a symbol of a brighter tomorrow.

“[Before] there were many poachers, but now they have jobs – some have become scouts,” he smiles.

Behind that smile is also the knowledge that his two young children have a future, too.

How to relocate an elephant

A translocation team consists of a vet, helicopter pilots, rangers and managers. In total, it takes 15-20 people to capture and transport one elephant, explains Marnet Ngosi, education officer for African Parks.

First the pachyderm is sedated with a tranquiliser dart fired from a helicopter. Once the animal falls, a team on the ground ropes it up and a crane lifts it onto a flatbed truck.

This truck then carries the sleeping tusker out of the bush, where it is then transferred to a relocation truck; the elephant being awoken in a purpose-built ‘wake-up’ crate, which was loaded onto one of four 30t low-bed truck that were used for the four-hour or so journey to Nkhotakota. The trucks can carry anywhere from two to ten animals at a time, depending on their size, adds Marnet.

The total distance covered during the project was around 125,000 km, roughly three times around the world.

On arrival at its new home, the elephant is released into a boma – a protected holding facility with food and water on tap – before being released into the reserve’s 190 sq km sanctuary 12-24 hours later.

Each relocation phase took about six weeks to complete, with the transfers taking place in the cooler months of June to August, to minimise any distress caused to the animals.

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