Whether by design or purpose, national parks and game reserves have, over the years, been regarded as sanctuaries of hope to the remaining Malawi’s flora and fauna as they are protected areas specifically set aside to keep wildlife poachers at bay!
For all intents and purposes, the general public looks up to game reserves and national parks for the protection and preservation of wildlife.
However, if truth be told, with poachers getting sophisticated in their ruthlessness in decimating protected game and getting armed to the teeth by the day, things haven’t been as rosy as we had all expected.
Our prized wildlife is disappearing at the speed of light while we all doze around in daylight!
Praise Mapiri, 29, of Kweluza Village, in the area of Traditional Authority Changata in Thyolo, has been a game ranger, also known as Parks and Wildlife Assistant (PWA), for over nine years.
According to Mapiri, the job needs dedication and affection for game and not just love of money!
“I wanted to become a game ranger but didn’t know it is this hard, however, once I got in, I immediately fell in love with it and I just love contributing to the development of the country through protection of wild animals,” he said.
Mapiri, who emerged this year’s best Liwonde National Park game ranger, said during one of their day long patrols, as opposed to long patrols where they spend four or more nights in the bush, he and friends encountered poachers armed to the teeth as they returned home.
“We were tired and thirsty and had no food but we couldn’t let the poachers go scot free. So we exchanged gunfire until dusk. Although they ran away, we managed to confiscate their muzzle loaders,” Mapiri said.
He said lack of incentives, poor salaries, worn out equipment, and poor management affect the performance of PWAs, making the job difficult.
It is for this reason that Mark Hiley, Operation Safe Haven (OSH) founder, whose interest in wildlife began when he witnessed a lot of elephants and rare black rhinos dying in poachers’ snares as he filmed wildlife in the 1990s, made a resolution to save Liwonde National Parks remaining elephants and the other Big Five.
“Before OSH was introduced in 2014, poaching was out of control and experts had given the park six months to the end but we quickly found out that the root of the problem was that the ranger team was poorly selected, completely undisciplined, badly motivated, habitually drunk or corrupt and conniving with poachers,” Hiley said.
He said OSH has succeeded because of
good management and has managed to remove 10, 000 lethal snares and gin-traps, caught and arrested 70 proven hard-core poachers and built a new Operations Complex apart from installing a park-wide Very High Frequency (VHF) radio network in just about nine months on a shoe-string budget of $85 000.
Hiley said given that 70 percent of tourists come to Africa to sample its wildlife, it is obvious that poaching would devastate and rob Malawi of its untapped resource.
In an interview, former Minister of Information, Tourism and Culture, Kondwani Nankhumwa, said a well trained and motivated PWAs ranger team and a knowledgeable community would go a long way in bringing down the high incidence of poaching.
Nankhumwa said Malawi Government acknowledges that this country continues to face increased rates of poaching and illegal trafficking of high value wildlife products such as ivory and rhino horn and this does not only devastate and rob the country its natural heritage but also handicaps the economy.
“Liwonde National Park is one of Malawi’s major tourist attractions but I am aware of inadequate funding and ineffective law enforcement contributed to high wildlife crime which led to depletion of the rhino population by almost 50 percent,” Nankhumwa said.
He said degradation of the national park was not only a threat to wildlife but also to Malawi’ tourism.
According to Nankhumwa, Malawi Government was committed in partnering with the private sector under the Public, Private, Partnership (PPP) in ensuring that sustainable and mutually beneficial wildlife management in all the country’s game parks involves surrounding communities.
Nankhumwa further said proper management of game parks would help the country raise the much needed forex.
According to reports, Operation Safe Heaven started initially as emergency operation to save Malawi’ last “Big Five” in Liwonde National Park through the singular efforts of Mark Hiley, who has the passion for Malawi’s wildlife.
Nankhumwa said a thriving PPP in the management of wildlife is the only arrangement the private sector can effectively assist government in enhancing protection of game parks from further destruction.
“I have been ably told this is the first part of a larger plan called ‘The Five Point Plan’ to support Malawi’s parks and wildlife and that OSH succeeded by having a major psychological impact, bringing the army which showed poachers and rangers that government and cooperating partners are serious in fighting wildlife crime in the parks,” Nankhumwa said.
He said government alone cannot fulfill all its obligations to its citizens and at the same time provide quality care to wildlife hence it welcomes PPP approach in wildlife management.
Principal Secretary for Tourism and Culture, Elsie Tembo, said the rapid decline of wildlife in Malawi has affected the levels of tourism and thanked OSH for its effective work.
“Recently government signed a 20 year Concession Agreement with African Parks Network (APN) on a PPP arrangement for the management of Liwonde National Park and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve of which OSH was a very important bridging undertaking,” Tembo said.
She said PPP does not mean the public park has been sold but that it would only be managed by a private company.
Traditional Authority Sitola of Machinga said government had failed to manage the wildlife in the park and welcomed the PPP arrangement.
“Animals have become a menace to the general public and as I speak some buffalos are outside the fence. Leaving management of the park into private hands would go a long way in enhancing security of the surrounding villages,” Sitola said.
He said there was need to construct game rangers’ houses every few kilometres outside the park fence if security is to be enhanced since they would be monitoring movement of both animals and would-be poachers.
The success of OSH has led to the formation of a new organisation, National Parks Rescue, which will perform similar operations in other national parks.
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