Decades of a “plethora of wildlife crimes” in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, including “heavy poaching” which was committed unabated, had reduced the animal population in the reserve to a meagre 100 elephants by 2014, according to African Parks and Ministry of Tourism.
The oldest and largest wildlife reserve in Malawi–spanning 1,800 kilometer square and once a sanctuary for thousands of animals, including lions, elephants, buffalo, zebras, antelopes, leopards, kudus and warthogs–had become an empty and silent forest, just featuring its picturesque hilly terrain, dambos and miombo woodlands.
In the thick of the plunder, exacerbated from the 1990s, the number of tourists visiting the reserve had also reduced significantly, resulting in loss of revenue which could have enabled the government to provide vital social services to the citizenry.
The government actually managed the reserve at that time, through the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), using the then National Parks and Wildlife Act, which had weak penalty provisions and ambiguous terminology, making it difficult to enforce.
Then African Parks–a non-profit conservation organization–took over the management of the reserve in 2015, initiating reintroductions in 2016 and 2017, of 500 elephants and 2,000 other animals, followed by further introductions in 2022, which has rekindled hope for tourism and the reserve reclaiming its status as an important wildlife habitat.
Joseph Nkosi, Ministry of Tourism Public Relations Officer, does not state the exact number of animals that were in the reserve before the plunder began, citing “lack of technology to calculate the animals at that time”, among other factors.
But other sources indicate that there were over 3500 elephants and thousands other animals, including plenty of lions and leopards, among many other animal species.
The plunder–through, among others, charcoal burning, logging and poaching–was orchestrated and perpetrated from all angles.
That is because the vast wildlife reserve shares its boundaries with four districts: Nkhotakota to the east and south, Ntchisi to the southwest, Kasungu to the west and Mzimba to the north.
Nkosi agrees there was the proliferation of wildlife crimes, especially poaching which was very high, leading to depletion of the animal species.
The problem, according to Nkosi, was compounded by, among others, absence of an electric wire fence or any other fence, few and unequipped and unmotivated park rangers, lack of technology and funding to manage the reserve.
“As a result, everybody had access to the reserve, even people from Mozambique and other countries. We cannot rule out that some surrounding community members indeed aided some foreigners to plunder the animal species,” Nkosi said.
Conservationists also blame the then weaker National Parks and Wildlife Act, which made the courts hand out “disappointing convictions” for wildlife related offences, with traffickers and poachers ending up with minimal fines.
Group Village Head (GVH) Kuchelachela 1, whose area is about half a kilometer along the reserve in Traditional Authority (TA) Malengachanzi, says “it was indeed free for all plunder”.
“Community members could go into the reserve at will to kill animals and commit various other wildlife crimes.
“Even people from far away places, including those probably outside Malawi came to poach, some assumed to have been aided by surrounding community members”.
He says some communities regretted later on for “destroying their own country’s treasure”.
“But what else could people have done? Disgusting poverty drove most of them to do this. They were desperate to earn a living, to have a livelihood”.
Mathias Mtambalika, 67, from neighbouring GVH Nkhongo 2, has lived along the reserve for 39 years. He recalls with regret the era of the plunder during which, he says, human-wildlife conflicts especially involving elephants, were also rampart.
He agrees with GVH Kuchelachela 1: “It was like an opportunity to survive had presented itself before a people struggling to have even the very basic essential needs. It was indeed a matter of survival for many people”.
David Nangoma, Park Manager for Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve under African Parks, concurs with Nkosi, adding that a “plethora of challenges” hindered park rangers at that time from enforcing laws and conducting effective patrols, thereby enabling communities and crime mongers to exploit the animal species.
“The reserve was really in a devastated situation. It was as if in Malawi there are no laws governing the management of protected areas. Almost all the animal species in the reserve got wiped out,” he said.
In August 2015, African Parks signed a twenty-year agreement with DNPW to manage the reserve through a Public Private Partnership arrangement.
Since taking over management, the organization has made efforts to bring back all the animal species that were previously believed to have existed in the reserve.
Nangoma says in 2016 and 2017, African Parks, in partnership with the Government of Malawi, brought into the reserve about 500 elephants and 2000 other animals of different species.
That, said Nangoma, was in a bid to restock the reserve to “slowly bring it back to its past glory”.
According to Nangoma, there is “big success and great improvement” as a survey conducted about two years ago reveal, for instance, that elephants have increased from 600 to 700.
“Looking at ecological modeling that we have of elephant reproduction, which is at seven percent, we believe we are having pretty much more than the 700. We are probably hitting about 800.
“Several other species are also doing very well. Kudus and buffalo are increasing by their numbers. Seeing every family of either buffalo or elephant or other animals, you find so many cubs at foot, showing there is more successful reproduction taking place,” he said.
Nangoma also revealed that a total of 35 animal species have been reintroduced so far and are reproducing, raising the total animal population in the reserve to between 8000 and 15000.
Tourist visitations, adds Nangoma, have also increased highly due to the reintroduced animal species and tremendous improvement in the holistic management of the reserve and better service delivery.
“When we started in 2015, records show that only about 15 tourists had been visiting in a year, which earned the reserve a few hundred dollars. Now we have over 2000 tourists visiting every year, which enables us to generate a lot of revenue. For instance, in 2023, we earned $70,000”.
“But that does not satisfy us. In the coming years, we want to hit $100,000 or $200,000 per year. Actually that depends on our ability to market the reserve as a prime tourism destination.
“We are happy that Nkhotakota is regarded as a tourism district as that already catapults us to become one of the ingredients in the tourism products that the district has to offer”.
African Parks also installed a 309 kilometers long electric wire fence covering the entire reserve except for a nine kilometers stretch in the north, where the “terrain is a barrier itself”.
The fence repels animals, restricting them within the reserve. It is on “strict surveillance” by fence liners to protect it from vandals and keep away any possible poachers and other crime mongers.
Nangoma says there is unfaltering enthusiasm, excitement and efficiency among the rangers and other staff as they go about executing their duties in serving, promoting and protecting the restored reserve. He attributes this to motivation.
“Our rangers wear uniforms which make them get identified easily. We have equipped them well enough and train them quite often. We pay them well and on time and give them food rations as they go out for patrols, among other duties”.
Nkosi notes and acknowledges these achievements by African Parks and commends the organization, more especially for even addressing training and other challenges which affected the government’s rangers being “key personnel in the management and sustainability of the reserve”.
He says this will ensure “continuity of high standards of law enforcement, efficiency and competency” after African Parks leaves the reserve in future.
Malawi, after all, has now stepped up her efforts to preserve her parks and wildlife reserves by also enforcing a new National Parks and Wildlife Act 2017, which enables courts to hand out major fines and substantial prison sentences, sending a clear message that wildlife crime is serious and will be treated as such.
GVH Kuchelachela 1 sums up everything by saying: “The restoration of Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve is very important, for future generations here would not have known the replaced animal species that almost went extinct during the period of plunder”.