Wandering at night and in the morning in Lusani, west of Rumphi District is strictly at owners’ risk as marauding elephants rove in search of food, in the process attacking members of the community. The area borders Vwaza Marsh and Wildlife Reserve-—home to 300 elephants—whose 42-kilometre fence was destroyed, prompting the elephants to go haywire daily. In this edition of Friday Shaker, FESTON MALEKEZO travelled to the area where there is a heated blame-game on whose life should be protected—people’s or elephants?
On September 30 2019, Elia Nyirenda said he cheated death.
An elephant nearly killed him in Lusani Village as he, together with his friend, were cutting trees, 300 metres from Vwaza.
The branches were for the construction of a fence for their tobacco nurseries to protect them from elephants which storm the village.
“It was my colleague who first saw the elephants coming our way. He started running away while calling me to run as well. It was too late for me. I run a few metres but the beast was just right behind me. Accidentally, I stumbled and I fell down. The elephant lifted me and threw me at a distance. I was whipped and bruised. After a while of beatings, I was buried in the soil. I don’t know what happened after that incident,” he said.
His friend Joseph Munthali watched the whole incident.
“After he was buried in the soils, the elephants left. I stood in shock; terribly sweating. I though I had lost my friend. I did not know what to do. A few minutes later, Elia woke up and started walking like a headless chicken. He was purely a dead man walking,” Munthali recounted the incident.
Elia was rushed to Rumphi District Hospital and he is now feeling better.
Lusani has 7,432 households in 83 villages lying along the eastern boundary of Vwaza.
As we go to the villages, a house of an old couple, Lontia Mtakataka and Bonface Matundu was also vandalised.
Elephants destroyed the roof of the couple’s grass-thatched house and ate all the maize which could take them throughout the lean period.
“I have never been very scared like on that day. We prayed for our lives. The elephants did not harm us but ate all our maize. We are worried because we do not know how we will survive,” Lontia, a septuagenarian, said.
Almost everybody in the area has had a bitter encounter with elephants.
The villagers say some 10 to 30 elephants frequent the area in search of food.
In the past five years, Lusani was one of the highest producers of staple food because of its fertile alluvial soils, the communities say. Not anymore.
The elephants started frequenting the villages in February 2019, following the disappearance of the non-electrified single wire fence, which bordered Vwaza to Lusani.
Chief Principal Group Village Head Mtamila alleged that elephants destroyed the fence.
“The National Parks and Wildlife Department suspected and believed that some people within the area damaged the wire fence, as a result, it is not willing to replace the wire. This is unfair and unfortunate as people and animals have no boundaries. People are treated as wild animals and animals are respected, protected more than people. This is totally inhuman, as the government of Malawi and the Parks and Wildlife Department have turned a deaf ear on grievances of its people,” Mtamila said.
Most people in the area are farmers who grow crops such as maize, cassava and tobacco.
A preliminary assessment which Youth Initiative for Empowerment in Leadership and Development (Yield), a local youth organisation carried out, indicates that over 18.8 hectares of maize has been destroyed from February 2019 to date translating to about K33.8 million in losses.
The assessment which was done in only about 10 percent of total households which have been affected further indicates that 14.9 hectares of cassava, five hectares for bananas, 2.2 hectares of soya and peas and over 235 mango trees have been destroyed by the elephants.
“The elephants have made the people live in great fear, while facing severe damages and loss of property mainly food crops. This has resulted in dire poverty and hunger in the area because their crops have turned to feeds for wild animals. This will lead to malnutrition of the infants because of food shortages. Most families are eating once a day and thoroughly dependent on piece works done very far from the area to earn their daily bread,” the organisation’s director, Jaih Kanyondo, said.
According to the communities, education has also been compromised in the area as some children are shunning classes in fear of the elephants which usually intrude the area every evening and return to the wildlife reserve in the morning.
Along the stretch, there are primary schools of Lusani, Mafumu and Kalakalaka.
“This situation is very pathetic because the future of the area belongs to the youth who do not access quality education. This will result in poverty circle in Lusani community. It is an area in which movement of people in the morning and evening is strictly at owners’ risk,” Kanyondo said.
Head teacher for Lusani Primary School, Malan Munthali, whose institution has over 600 learners, said learners stopped going at night at the school for studies in fear of being attacked.
“Lusani primary has a catchment area of about 30 villages and its sad how pupils miss classes. Some would come, however, late because they fear for their lives. We cannot blame them. Now that the learners stopped coming to study at night, I am not very sure about their performance in the next Primary School Leaving Certificate,” he said.
Department of National Parks and Wildlife Director, Brighton Kumchedwa, said his office was aware of the rampant human-elephant-conflicts but said the fence was destroyed by ill-minded members of communities who used the wire as snares for poaching.
Kumchedwa said they have rangers who drive the elephants back to the reserve when they invade villages.
“With financial support from KfW, we will next year be rehabilitating the fence and construct additional 20-kilometre to get the areas of Mutani where there has been no fence before. My plea is that the communities need to own these fences as they are meant to protect them from these dangerous animals in their neighbourhood,” he said.
But should the people wait for next year while their lives are in danger?
“We cannot do it now because the project is yet to roll out,” Kumchedwa said.
The project looks at other aspects that include fencing and has a total grant of 18 million euros for a trans-frontier Conservation Area project for Malawi and Zambia.
Environmentalist, Alufeyo Mwalukomo, said much as there was a blame-game in the Rumphi area, lives of people should be protected.
Mwalukomo said whether the people vandalised the fence or it was destroyed by the animals in the reserve, the government should protect the people.
“There was a similar case in Nkhotakota Game Reserve sometime back. Here it was evident that people vandalised the fence, but the government moved in quickly to take some steps. Among others, some people were arrested, fire arms were confiscated. Apart from that, people were given social activities to be doing. After all that, there is sanity,” he said.
Acting National Coordinator for African Parks Samuel Kamoto who is also park manager for Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve said in a year, they record in excess of 40 cases of attacks following animal breakouts.
Kamoto said a lasting solution to prevent this is that people should refrain from cultivating along boundaries of reserves.
“During the rainy season when crops are in the field elephants break out because they are attracted by crops. This happens to the east of the reserve where farmers have cultivated their crops right up to the perimeter fence. The solution is people should not cultivate crops right to the boundary of the reserve and stop vandalising fence equipment,” he said.
African Parks is a conservation non-governmental organisation which manages national parks and protected areas across Africa.
In Malawi, African Parks manages Liwonde, Majete, Mangochi and Nkhotakota Wildlife reserves.
Human deaths and injuries, although less common than crop- damage, are the manifestations of human-wildlife conflict.
Food and Agriculture Organisation documents in its paper titled: ‘Human-wildlife Conflict’ that more than 200 people were killed in Kenya over the last seven years by elephants.
In Ghana, 10 people were killed by elephants in Kakum Conservation Area in the last five years.
In the densely populated Caprivi Region of Namibia, 5,000 elephants – one of the largest free-ranging populations of elephants – was responsible for twice as many aggressions as lions in 1990s and attacked over a larger area.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 14—life below water—and SDG 15—life on land— speaks of the need for a peaceful co-existence of animals and humans as humanity is undeniably linked with fellow species.
In Lusani, this would be a far-fetched dream as elephants are feared to be agents of death.
Though no life has been lost yet, death looms.