Kasungu National Park, located in the Central Region of Malawi and bordering Zambia, was once a popular tourist destination.
However, 20 years down the line one can feel how outrageous poaching has turned the country’s second largest Park, lying on 2100 square kilometres, from an exciting tourist holiday hot spot to a desolate amusement place.
Once teeming with abundant species of animals, including elephants, it is now an embodiment of a ghost forest. Animal densities have fallen low.
Lifupa Lodge, which was built in the middle of the park to accommodate tourists, looks spooky and deserted.
Scores of species of wildlife which used to come to the man-made dam at the lodge to quench thirst have drastically dwindled. One can stay at the lodge the whole day without seeing a wild animal.
The once nicely-built bungalows at the resort have become an abandoned homestead.
The lodge, which is managed by Parks and Wildlife, a government department, has no electricity despite a three-phase electricity wire passing through it.
Over the 21 kilometres that Times Crew travelled from the entrance of the park to the lodge, we saw no animals except birds. This was despite an assurance from some of the park authorities that there are about 100 elephants.
One of the workers at the lodge, Jacob Charles, admitted the decline in the number of guests because of poaching.
“Five years ago this place used to be fully booked because people wanted to see animals, especially elephants. Now there are very few guests coming. Poaching has affected the business,” he said.
After travelling over 100 kilometre to visit the park for the first time, Ellen Sanga was frustrated and bitter that, except birds, she did not see the animals as she had anticipated.
“This is frustrating. I used to hear that this place is nice but look at the structures. I expected to see zebras, elephants but I can’t see them,” she said.
Chief of Party for Malawi- Zambia Landscape Project, a joint project by the two countries to combat wildlife crime, Patricio Ndadzela, said Kasungu National Park used to host 1500 elephants 20 years ago but in 2015 the population had dwindled to 40.
And for a country that touts to turn tourism into a money spinning industry so that it contributes substantially to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), the condition of Kasungu National Park make that narrative sound a joke and a farfetched dream.
No wonder, according to the World Data Atlas in 2019, real contribution of travel and tourism to GDP of Malawi increased from US$0.2 billion in 2000 to US$0.6 billion in 2019 growing at an average annual rate of 6.3 percent.
Along the border of Malawi and Zambia, home to three stunning national parks in southern Africa namely Kasungu, Lukusuzi and Luambe, poaching is particularly severe.
It is a complicated problem because after hunting elephants in Malawi or Zambia poachers easily cross the border into either one of the countries where respective government officials no longer have the authority to arrest them.
Malawi-Zambia Landscape Manager, Lakalongela Ng’ambi, sounded confident with the progress done so far in combating poaching.
She said the population of elephants and other animals was improving because of the strategies which have been deployed to combat the vice.
“We have a corridor that lets animals migrate from Zambia to Kasungu. If the animals find it hostile they go back to Zambia. The poachers also use the same corridor because it is a hotspot,” Ng’ambi said.
It is evident that so long as they extract ivory for sell, these poachers do not appreciate that elephants are considered a keystone species in the African landscape.
However, there seems to be life at the end of the tunnel for the Kasungu National Park as in 2017, Ifaw (International Fund for Animal Welfare) with financial assistance from United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched a Combating Wildlife Crime (CWC) project to protect elephant populations along the Malawi-Zambia border landscape.
Game rangers from both Malawi and Zambia have also been equipped with relevant skills to combat the crime.
Joseph Chauluka is an instructor of rangers at the Park and is confident that they will win the fight.
“We have got rangers in the outline camps and rapid response teams. We are working with our Zambian counterparts in this project of combating poaching,” he said.
Ndadzela emphasises that though the initiative targets elephant species, enforcement capacity developed through this activity will benefit numerous other species targeted in the landscape and caught up in illegal trade.
The project has several objectives which include to decrease elephant poaching rates to levels that will allow for the sustainability of the population, achieve at least a 25 percent decline in elephant poaching, enhance capacity of law enforcement officials to identify and prosecute and disrupt illegal trafficking routes operating across Malawi and Zambia.
“The current trend of poaching is decreasing. We used to have a lot of gunshots (from poachers) in a month but now we don’t get gunshots anymore,” he said.
Statistics from Ifaw show that as of 2021 at least 1926 people have been arrested through this initiative and 2762.48 kilogrammes of ivory seized. At least 365 convictions have been secured representing a 76.5 percent rate.
Ndadzela said plans are underway to translocate about 200 elephants from Liwonde National Park to Kasungu to bolster tourism in the area.
The elephants will add to a variety of animals in the park like kudu, sable and antelopes and zebras.
Then, perhaps, life at Kasungu National Park will revert to normalcy.