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By: Chengeta Wildlife 06 October 2014
Let’s be honest; Malawi has been hit harder by poaching than many countries. However, although one of the poorest countries in Africa, it is also known for its friendly, hard-working and peaceful people. It has been known for many years as “The Warm Heart Of Africa”, a title that suits the beautiful place perfectly.
I was fortunate to live in Malawi as a child. I remember clearly the first time I tried to track lions on my own. I was eleven years old and a pride had passed along the river that ran along the bottom of my aunt’s garden on their farm North of Mzuzu, close to the Tanzanian border.
“Farm” was hardly an apt description, although they did grow tobacco. My cousins and I spent our days chasing around the bush looking for animals and playing with the children from the local villages. There were a variety of pets, including a four-foot African rock python, two tiny grysbok deer, a duiker, a crazy African Wild Cat, amongst other orphaned creatures that constantly came and went.
I had spotted the lion tracks while looking for snakes with a couple of Tumbuka kids and, whilst I had decided that it would be a damn fine idea to follow them, my friends declared me mad and left. So, off I went.
Fortunately for me I didn’t catch up to the lions before it started getting too late and I was forced to turn back and head home. Thank goodness I did or I most likely would not be writing this now. Anyone who has seen a lion’s reaction to just a child’s voice from a game-drive vehicle, or when seeing them through a fence, will know how appealing children are to them, in the worst possible way..
I have many vivid memories of Malawi from my childhood, some sad and many happy. One thing I will never forget is the majestic beauty of the place and the stunning diversity of habitats and animals. From montane forests, to the magnificent lake, to the teeming wildlife. Where in the world could an eleven year old come across lion tracks at the bottom of the garden on the banks of a wild river with gorgeous mountains rising up behind?
The wildlife no longer exists along that river, or anywhere in that district.
I saw a poacher for the very first time in Malawi. He was driving a truck loaded with skins and meat past my uncle’s property across the border into Tanzania. I remember the ivory carvers who openly plied their trade on the main street of Blantyre. Even with those signs, I would never in my childhood have imagined the terrible scourge that would obliterate the once mighty herds of elephants that roamed freely.
Many countries in Africa are in this situation, but Malawi is different in some important ways. It is saying no to poaching and taking a real stand. Firstly, the country needs tourism, 60% of the country’s foreign currency earnings. There are no diamonds, there is no gold, and there is little local industry. Tourism is one of the few ways for the country to earn sorely needed foreign currency.
Secondly, the country and its parks are relatively small. They are not gigantic areas that have just been left to themselves. They can be effectively protected more easily than some of the massive wildlife areas in neighbouring countries that would require legions of rangers to patrol them.
Thirdly, and most importantly, it has the political will. The government, at the highest levels, actually wants to put a stop to poaching, and to teach its people the importance of wildlife. The country recently decided to included teaching in its schools on the importance of wildlife and the reasons that poaching is wrong. Incredible.
I recently conducted a training course for the heads of the anti-poaching units for all the parks in the country. At the passing out parade the minister of tourism stood up to make his speech. I almost fell over when I heard it. He openly and honestly listed the failings of his country in the past to protect its wildlife, even listing the decline in numbers of key species. That was nothing though.. he then announced that we had uncovered a couple of rangers involved in poaching, something we were of course keeping secret from the outside world, and he told the gathered crowd that they would be made an example of and shown “no mercy”. Wow, after all my years in wildlife and conservation and running around this continent, this was the first time I ever heard a politician speak like this. I was then asked to step forward as he would like to thank me personally for my work and for the support and work of the organizations that paid for and arranged me to be there, Chengeta Wildlife and Lion ALERT.
He shook my hand, and, looking me straight in the eye, he said, “Please tell your colleagues that we do not take this for granted and we are going to show the world that we can win this”.
I train rangers to locate and arrest poachers and traffickers. Usually it is pretty thankless work and one often has to fight frustration and even depression because of the lack of support and the apathy of governments and even the men, but most especially the public and the leaders. This government however is determined to win and the rangers themselves are second to none.
I heard as a child the stories of the brave men of the King’s African Rifles fighting the Japanese in Asia. Nyasaland as Malawi was known in those days was renowned for the bravery and dedication of the soldiers who originated there and served in the two battalions raised by the British to fight in far away places. I have seen for myself why the Malawians were so sought after. They are tough, they are determined, they are hard working and they are brave. They also have an amazing sense of humour, which invariably shows itself when most needed to raise spirits. They may be poor in some ways but when it comes to spirit they are amongst the wealthiest.
Malawi doesn’t have money for drones and helicopters. They have realised they have to be clever they have to be willing to do what is necessary, and that is what they are doing. Working with the communities, they have a “revenue sharing system” which gives 25% of revenues from the park to the communities around the area.
During the recent training we actually took down a whole poaching syndicate, with buyers and traffickers and identified several others in their entirety. Rarely do you hear of such successes in countries with much better equipment and funding.
The difference is this; everybody at all levels in the Malawi Department of National Parks and Wildlife is determined to win. From the Minister down to the Director and on down to the men on the ground. There are a few bad eggs but they will be dealt with “mercilessly”, I have no doubt; and those wonderful rangers are going to carry on arresting poachers.
Why? Because they have the support of their leaders, they are good, brave, determined men and they are willing to learn from others how to get it done.
Thank you Chengeta Wildlife and Lion ALERT for making it all possible.