Return of the Reserves
Turning back the clocks on Malawi’s game parks.
Malawi’s dawn is unsubtle. By 5 a.m., a gang of woodpeckers has for some time been tapping loud, random code on a branch above my tented room, somewhere in the heart of the Majete Wildlife Reserve. Rut-tut-tut-tut-tut aside, the soundtrack that surrounds is an electric symphony of whirring, clicking, buzzing insects, cut through with the chatter and warbling of birds flitting between trees like airborne gossip circles.
Outside, there’s a scene for which it’s worth being awake — a primordial unfolding as crimson daubs the sky in glowing psychedelic patterns, throwing the branches of naked trees into ghostly silhouettes. Pools of liquid gold illuminate the dry grass, signaling baboons to troop toward the lodge’s water hole. Behind them traipse cautious nyala antelope, pausing repeatedly to scan for predators. Warthogs trickle in with their tiny hoglets.
Before the sun bleaches out the morning’s vivid ochres, our ranger collects us for the morning game drive through Majete’s rugged miombo woodland. We pass ancient baobabs and all-white star chestnut trees before pausing to let an elephant family cross the road. We spot zebras, large eland, tiny suni, sable antelope and — weirdest of all — a pair of motorbikes rushing past us, carrying men in military-style fatigues with rifles slung over shoulders. The men are counting rhino, our ranger explains, and they carry arms just in case they cross paths with poachers.
As that reality sinks in, we arrive at a spot above the Shire River, where we climb out to watch dozens of wallowing hippos splash and guffaw while crocodiles bask silently on mud embankments. Nearby, more elephants and all kinds of plains game hover at the far bank to drink.
The fact that there’s so much animal life here, our ranger explains, is all thanks to a human-orchestrated miracle. At the turn of the century, Majete stood on the brink of collapse. With no boundary fence, human encroachment on protected land, and dismal infrastructure, its animal life had been nearly eliminated. Surveys suggested that lions hadn’t been seen since 1976, and leopards since 1986. By 2003, the only large carnivores still living in Majete were spotted hyenas.
It was then that a newly-established Dutch nonprofit conservation organization called African Parks formed a unique partnership with the Malawian government. The agreement enabled African Parks to assume management of Majete and set about restoring the reserve to its former glory.
Since taking on Majete, African Parks has likewise taken over failed reserves in Zambia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Chad. And in Malawi, the organization recently took charge of two more reserves in urgent need of rehabilitation, bringing the total area of land under its protection to more than 6 million hectares.
Reviving these parks, filling them with sustainable animal populations, and transforming them into viable tourist destinations is hardly straight-forward, our ranger tells us. But African Parks’ single-minded determination is backed by clearly laid plans, people to execute them and serious financial clout. With links to such charitable organizations as the Clinton Foundation, Tusk Trust, Born Free and WWF, African Parks has not only the will, but the means, to take dramatic steps in order to undo past damage.
Resurrecting a reserve
After breakfast, our ranger takes us to Majete’s headquarters, where we get a glimpse into the daily workings of those who’ve been engineering the park’s seemingly miraculous revival since 2003. Back then, the 700-square-kilometer reserve was depleted, says Shelley Preece, the reserve’s tourism marketing manager. Since then, Preece has had her hands full getting the park on the map — a tough gig, given that Malawi itself is little known to the outside world.
Until now, those few who do travel to this tiny, slender nation wedged between three giants — Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique — have tended to come for the country’s best-known natural asset: Lake Malawi. Dotted with resorts along its sandy shores, Africa’s third-largest lake is famous for its endemic fish; the highest number of freshwater species of any lake on earth resides here, and snorkeling with its colorful cichlids stands among Africa’s great pastimes.
Although Malawi has almost a dozen national parks, a lack of resources and funding has meant that over the decades, reserves like Majete have fallen victim to plundering by poachers. In most wilderness areas, many once-rife species have disappeared — and without animals to stimulate safari tourism, there’s been no way for the reserves to generate income.
“It was a park only on paper,” says Craig Hay, Majete’s manager, about the reserve before African Parks stepped in. “There were 10 staff members without resources to patrol or effectively manage the reserve.” Infrastructure was bare-boned — just 15 km of road along the Shire River, making it undesirable for visitors and incredibly difficult for security to reach the park’s interior. Game had become almost nonexistent, says Hay; indeed, a 2003 survey counted no more than 200 animals.
Between 2003 and 2004, when African Parks began overhauling the reserve’s security, Preece says over 400 muzzle-loading guns were confiscated from poachers in and around the reserve.
We meet two members of Majete’s current law enforcement team who are actively involved in the park’s fight against poaching. Before 1994, recalls one named John Jiya, there was still plenty of wildlife, but then civil war in Mozambique brought refugees forced to poach for meat and skin, emptying the park of animals.
From a secure room, the pair hauls out illicit skins and poaching equipment confiscated from arrested poachers, including some scary-looking hunting devices: pangas, grass snares, gin traps made from the springs of tractors, crudely-fashioned rifles, and fertilizer and battery chemicals mixed to make gun powder. Many of these gizmos originated in guerrilla-warfare technology.
It’s been over a year since a poacher was caught inside the park itself, but Jiya says that only two weeks earlier an arrest was made outside Majete. “He’d snared a bushbuck and tried selling the meat to villagers. Someone reported him, and now he’s facing the consequences.”
Strong relationships between park authorities and people living outside the reserve are crucial, explains Hay. It’s critical to the park’s survival for local communities to feel invested in Majete’s sustained well-being, he adds, by sharing the economic benefit of conservation tourism. To achieve this, African Parks runs education programs and actively nurtures micro-businesses and income-generating activities within surrounding communities.
“Subsistence poaching happens in virtually every protected area, and poachers will probably always be here,” says Hay. “But it’s a matter of scale. We’ve gone from rampant poaching to almost zero because community leaders give us information that helps us find the culprits.”
Getting to this point hasn’t happened overnight, but thanks to its big donor funding and powerful connections, African Parks doesn’t mess around. “There’s over 350 km of road now, a new fence that’s been erected, two tourist lodges, over 50 staff houses, and we employ 127 full-time staff,” says Hay. “It’s been a phase of putting essential infrastructure in place and restocking animals that disappeared.”
With the basics all set, over 2,000 antelope and zebra were introduced in 2003 and 2004. Those then ultimately paved the way for the eventual translocation of leopard and lion — marking Majete’s transition into Malawi’s first Big Five reserve in 2012 and ushering in a new era for the country’s under-functioning tourism sector.
Success is perhaps best demonstrated by Majete’s ever-increasing elephant numbers. Though once down to zero, more than 390 were counted in September’s game census. “That’s almost double the 217 we initially brought in,” says Hay. “We’re pretty much stocked with all species that should occur here naturally, and their numbers are growing at a natural rate.”
In fact, authorities intend to move some of the elephants elsewhere, a goal that’s now achievable thanks to African Parks’ take-over of two more Malawian reserves — Liwonde and Nkhotakota — last August. If all goes to plan, the first elephant translocation will happen in July, when around 400 pachyderms will be moved from Majete and Liwonde to start restocking Nkhotakota, where current wildlife numbers echo Majete’s situation 13 years ago.
Replicating the model
A sharp turn off the highway lands us on a dodgy dirt road lined with small, mud-brick houses. Time slows as we watch women wrapped in colorful clothing hoe the fields, some with babies tucked onto their backs. We pass wooden tables piled with tomatoes and mangos for sale, and as well as men transporting bundles of thatch by bicycle.
Soon, we’re bashing through what feels like uncharted territory, with dense woodland absorbing us as we imperceptibly cross Nkhotakota’s invisible boundary. The oldest but least-developed of all Malawi’s reserves, Nkhotakota is merely 30 km from the shores of Lake Malawi, and yet few even know of its existence. At 1,800 km2, it’s also Malawi’s biggest reserve — a detail that adds tremendously to the difficulty of securing the area against poachers. But its enormity also makes it an ideal location for African Parks’ proposed elephant sanctuary.
It also looks and feels more authentically wild than most reserves I’ve seen in Africa, so it’s a massive surprise when the road finally spits us out at Tongole, an award-winning, high-end wilderness lodge majestically poised above the Bua River, the park’s main lifeline.
The lodge itself is an architectural marvel: A gigantic single beam is poised high in the center of a vast thatched canopy, above a series of open-sided decks with a bar, dining area and lounge. The effect is to want to sit and stare outward.
Soon after we arrive, we’re paddled gently down the Bua in canoes, bird-spotting as we go and listening to stories about the lodge’s construction from our guide, who grew up just outside the reserve. It’s supremely tranquil and culminates with sunset gin and tonics sipped on the river’s edge. Aside from the briefest glimpse of one nervous-looking waterbuck, though, we don’t see a single land animal.
“We actually tell people not to expect to see wildlife,” says David Cole, the lodge’s ebullient, straight-talking founder. “You may see animals, but that isn’t what you’re here for. You come to get away from the crazy world, to unplug from Internet and cell phones.”
Since starting the lodge (which opened in 2011), Cole has worked ceaselessly to help fund this ever-expensive operation in Malawi. “If you look at what I’ve done on paper, you’d probably say, ‘Put this guy into an asylum!,’” he says of his decision to build a lodge in a reserve that for decades has been under-resourced and consequently ignored by tourism.
“When we first drove in, there wasn’t even a track to get anywhere near the center of the reserve. We turned up in an old 4X4 and had to fight our way in,” he says, adding “That was actually its great appeal. My previous experiences in Africa’s wildlife areas had been of places so well-organized and convenient that you don’t feel as if you’re on safari. Driving into Nkhotakota, I thought, Wow! We’re really in Africa here.”
The irony, though, is that animal life proved extremely scarce. “We didn’t see a single beast when we first came in,” he says. Indeed, with no fence and only intermittent crack-downs on illegal poaching, the reserve’s wildlife was nonexistent.
It took years before elephants from somewhere deep within the reserve started congregating in front of the lodge — and that had a lot to do with the knock-on effects of Tongole’s impact on local communities.
“Interestingly, when we were under construction, we had almost zero poaching,” says Cole. “We employed 200 people for 18 months. Those people had an alternative, so they didn’t need to poach — proof that by reducing unemployment, we can reduce poaching.”
Cole says most poaching stems from poverty. “People need to eat. It’s not organized crime. A bit of tusk does get sneaked out, but in our experience it’s mostly meat that’s taken out and sold in local communities.”
From the get-go, Cole was adamant that the lodge would function to benefit both wildlife and people living near the park. “Ultimately, our interest was in bringing tourism to an area so that we could start protecting wildlife in the longer term. You first have to get people on your side, teach them why they shouldn’t poach, and help them understand the economics of tourism.”
Cole’s holistic approach revolves around giving people an alternative to poaching, and he’s also delivered on promises to build classrooms and fund schools. With improvements to the local economy and more sustainable jobs, he says poaching has been reduced.
Cole believes this investment in the community is the reason he was approached by African Parks in 2012. “We were some little middle-of-nowhere lodge with a charity wing, and they said they’d been observing our work from afar and wanted a meeting,” he says.
After their initial survey of Nkhotakota, African Parks told Cole that though there wasn’t much wildlife, the organization considered it an interesting reserve. A key need is for the parks to get local communities on their side, and Tongole had already broken down that barrier.
Whether it was good luck or a stroke of genius, Cole believes Tongole’s operational ethos directly influenced African Parks’ decision to take on Nkhotakota, and the turn-around has been substantial already.
“A year ago, I worried that Tongole really was a crazy, expensive idea,” he says. “But so much is achievable now. What African Parks has done already — setting tsetse fly traps and installing roads — is phenomenal. I’m completely relaxed as far as the reserve’s future is concerned.”
Right now, fencing is the priority, in preparation for the imminent arrival of elephants — “the biggest-ever elephant relocation in history,” notes Cole, to be followed by restocking of all kinds of animals.
On top of the world
On my last morning at Tongole, I join Cole on a hike to the summit of Mount Chipata, the reserve’s highest point. It’s an easy, blissful walk along pathways once regularly trodden by animals, and then a short ascent to magnificent vistas.
As we go, Cole talks about Malawi’s unique allure. “Tourists who discover Malawi want it to stay the way it is — organic, uncommercialized, authentic. They feel they’ve found something that nobody else knows about. It has a best-kept secret feel.”
But in tourism, being undiscovered is a double-edge sword. “It makes it difficult to let people know we’re here, and to make Tongole feasible we need guests. And yet we wouldn’t want Nkhotakota to suddenly have 20 lodges.”
It’s certain that — with time and the allure of abundant game — Nkhotakota will start to feature as a safari destination, and tourist traffic into the park will increase. Cole yearns for a balance that will benefit wildlife, local people and visitors, and enable Tongole to become self-sustaining while remaining small and exclusive.
We sit for a long time on Chipata’s rocky summit, gazing out across Nkhotakota’s wilderness and feeling like we’re on top of the world. In every direction, as far as we can see, everything is within the reserve — an endless expanse of unspoiled original Africa.
The view provides a powerful, awe-inspiring sensation, and it’s easy to feel what no doubt fuels Cole’s relentless positivity, his belief that anything is achievable. That with enough will and determination, it’s possible to turn back the clock and start afresh.
Keith Bain is a freelance writer and travel journalist based in Cape Town who has written guidebooks to countries in three continents. He says it’s worth visiting Malawi simply to share smiles and conversation with some of the most gracious people on earth.