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Risking lives to protect wildlife

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BWEMBYA—We get enough food

Illegal wildlife trade is a major threat to conservation in Malawi and beyond.

Game rangers are the men and women who put themselves on the frontline to protect wildlife. Daily, they risk their lives because some poachers are armed and some wildlife species are dangerous.

Elephants and rhinoceros are particularly at risk because their tusks and horns are sold for many thousands of dollars, while pangolins have become the world’s most trafficked species simply for their scales.

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Eveles Magoli, 21, is one of the rangers at Kasungu National Park in Malawi. She qualified as a ranger after going through a tough training that consisted of both academic and physical tasks.

Magoli was trained under the Malawi-Zambia Transboundary Landscape Project, which is implemented by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), with funding from the United States Agency for International Development.

“Sometimes, we spend days in the bush doing patrols. Our main focus is to enforce the law and make sure wildlife is protected from poachers and other threats,” Magoli explains.

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She adds: “Whenever I am on patrol, I know that my life is in danger from wild animals like elephants and lions but we are trained on how to handle them. We also know there is a possibility of meeting armed poachers. Despite those threats, I have a duty to protect wildlife.”

The hardships of day-to-day life on patrol are a challenge she meets head on.

“There are times when we go for a day or two without bathing, especially when we patrol an area without streams or rivers. We also cover long distances per day sometimes in very hot weather conditions,” Magoli says.

Kasungu’s game rangers receive rations to sustain them when out in the bush and this includes both cooked and raw food depending on the length of the patrol.

“There are three types of patrols and these are 48 hours, 72 hours and 96 hours. In addition to carrying our own rations we also have to carry our tents for night-time accommodation. Our packs can be quite heavy,” Magoli explains.

Across the border, in Zambia, Bupe Bwembya, 23, is another ranger working at Lukusuzi National Park.

“I was motivated to become a ranger by my mother who loves wildlife, so I’m doing this to make her happy,” says Bwembya.

“One of the best things about being a ranger is that it has taught me to be courageous and confident. The job is hard and challenging. We spend between five to 15 days in the bush patrolling expansive areas. It can also be very scary – especially when we meet dangerous wildlife such as lions and leopards,” she says.

According to Bwembya, the interesting part is that she has an opportunity to see wildlife.

Bwembya says the rations she receives motivate her.

“When we are going to the field, we get enough food and this motivates us. We also receive uniforms,” she says.

Ifaw Director of Law Enforcement for Southern Africa, Michael Labuschagne says his organisation will continue to motivate rangers to ensure that wildlife is protected.

“Game rangers and other members of staff daily put their lives at risk of armed and dangerous poachers in protecting wildlife, hence the need to support them,” he says.

According to Labuschagne, Ifaw will continue to construct good housing units and provide other incentives such as uniforms and transport.

“We have tailors that produce uniforms for game rangers. We use community members to do the work as one way of empowering them economically,” he says.

Labuschagne says the motivated workforce has played a pivotal role in reducing poaching in the targeted national parks of Kasungu in Malawi and Lukusuzi and Luambe in Zambia.

“Rampant poaching reduced numbers of many species of wildlife in the targeted national parks, even leading to the extinction of some animal species. But patrols by the rangers have helped a lot in reducing wildlife crime, hence increased population of the animal species in the parks,” Labuschagne says.

For example, Malawi’s Kasungu National Park has registered over 100 percent increase of elephant population between 2015 and 2020.

“The number of elephants is 110 at Kasungu National Park, up from 55 in 2015. The increase is not limited to elephants but also other species such as hippos, zebras and waterbucks. This is attributable to the law enforcement initiatives and practices currently taking place in the Malawi-Zambia landscape such as patrols, training, cross-border meetings and the establishment of law enforcement units,” he explains.

The number of elephants decreased drastically from 1,040 in the 1970s to 55 in 2015. Upon realising the loss, the Malawi Government through its partners in combating wildlife crimes started implementing strategies which saw a number of elephants relocating back and others even giving birth resulting in an increase of the giants’ population by over 100 percent.

The project targets Luambe National Park and Lukusuzi National Park in Zambia and Malawi’s Kasungu National Park.

The Malawi-Zambia landscape emerged as a major ivory transit route because of its geographic location. Ivory moves from northern Mozambique, south-eastern Tanzania and Zambia through to Malawi where it is illegally processed for consumer markets in Southeast Asia and China.

Beginning in May 2017 and concluding in 2022, the goal of the project is to see wildlife populations stabilise or increase in the targeted landscape through a decrease in poaching-related mortalities.

In partnership with government agencies in Zambia and Malawi, the project is strengthening wildlife law enforcement in the region by supporting regional coordination among agencies and prioritising wildlife crime across enforcement and regulatory agencies.

Ifaw has brought together all relevant stakeholders in the landscape to create an enduring conservation partnership to better leverage resources and attain sustained wildlife protection with particular attention to creating community awareness and community participation in wildlife protection.

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