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Shielding wildlife from danger through action groups

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CONSULTATION TIME— Wag officials engage community members

By Charles Mkoka:

Even though they have no guns, pangas, catapults and other tools, Traditional Authority (T/A) Tambala’s subjects have always regarded elephant feet and the mouths of herbivorous animals in the wild as more lethal than these weapons.

“These animals destroy our crops when they run away from Salima-Dedza Forest Reserve,” said 50-year-old Evance Kapwepwe, one of the community members.

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His concerns could be valid.

Food security has, especially this year, become a key issue among Malawians, more so after tropical storms Ana and Gombe caused massive destruction to subsistence farmers’ crops through flooding.

The storms follow another devastation globally, namely the Covid pandemic, which has ravaged the globe, bringing economies to a standstill.

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T/A Tambala’s area of jurisdiction is on the peripheral of the Salima-Dedza Forest Reserve.

In the recent past, tension has been simmering between community members and wild animals following damage to the fence that used to separate people from wildlife.

Damage to the fence ended up damaging wildlife-humans relations, as animals would cross over from the reserve to people’s crop fields.

Tambala is well aware of problems the situation has brought to community members, who were caught between a rock and a hard place whenever they face the predicament of either protecting their crops from wildlife or coming face-to-face with wild animals which were, themselves, victims of human machinations.

The wild animals did not find implements with which to cut parts of the fence; people did.

Fortunately for T/A Tambala’s subjects, a live [electric] fence is about to be put in place so that, as the chief puts it, “unwelcome” contact between wildlife and people’s crops can become a thing of the past.

This means crops, which wildlife used to trample upon, will now be out of wild animals’ reach.

The solar-powered fence, to be erected in liaison with community members and reserve management, will not cost stakeholders a fortune in electricity bills. Its power is generated through nature [the sun] to save nature [wildlife].

Speaking after attending a fence sensitisation engagement meeting at Salima Boma, Tambala could not hide his happiness.

“We are looking at the long-term relationship with the reserve management. They want to fulfill the goal of protecting crops and property while we, as community members, want to safeguard our crops and protect them from harm.

“Through the fence, we will strike the long sought after balance and promote warm relations between people and wildlife. This is for our own safety as residents of the area of Tambala. It [the idea] is also about giving us ownership of the reserve. Community members will lead the exercise and the fence will be fully safeguarded,” Tambala, who led a delegation of eight chiefs from his area to the meeting, said.

Tambala added that those in local governance structures were contacted and consulted and that they were working together to make sure that their goals are met.

He said they were also keen on taking the message to the people and stabilising their relationship with the reserve management.

As at now, Wildlife Action Group (Wag) manages Thuma and Dedza-Salima Forest Reserves. The non-governmental organisation works in partnership with local communities to protect, preserve and restore two important government forests in central Malawi.

This work is also being executed with the support of two other government departments, namely Forestry and National Parks and Wildlife.

Speaking in a separate interview, Wag director Lynn Clifford observed that they have been working tirelessly to contain human-wildlife conflicts in Dedza.

“We are delighted that we have managed to secure funding to extend the solar-powered fence, which will enable us to mitigate these conflicts.

“We expect to build a fence, to cover 20 more kilometres, in the area of Traditional Authority Tambala with full support of community members and chiefs in the area,” Clifford said.

The fence will not only secure people’s lives, property and livestock; it will also create short-term employment opportunities for over 500 villagers, with some likely to be fully engaged as fence attendants after Wag implements the project.

According to Clifford, funding has been realised through World Wildlife Fund Belgium and has been greatly welcomed by the people.

Wag is working very closely with people who surround reserves.

So far, it has created robust relationships with communities in general and communities of interest, thanks to the helping hand of traditional leaders.

Recently, eight group village heads, including Tambala, met with Wag management to discuss the issue of co-management when erecting and managing the fence. It is a clear indication of how long community members in Tambala’s area have waited for the fence to be erected to reduce wildlife conflicts.

Group Village Head (GVH) Mgawi said he was looking forward to the advent of a new dawn in wildlife, Wag staff and community members’ relations.

“This is why we have wholeheartedly received the new solar fence project in our area,” Mgawi explained.

GVH Kazembe concurs.

“We want an end to wildlife-humans conflict. Stray elephants, among other wildlife, have been a menace in my area.

“We, as traditional leaders as well as community members are, therefore, hopeful that the fence will prevent elephants from leaving the reserve to the village, where they wreak havoc in people’s gardens,” he said.

They are not the only group village heads excited.

GVH Nangamphasa is equally ecstatic.

“Of course, we want the fence as soon as yesterday. We no longer want to have a cat-and-mouse relationship with elephants, which have been terrorising us for many years,” he said.

The solar fence project will be implemented with community assistance to protect human life and boost food security. The eight GVHs are so far controlling illegal charcoal burning outside and along boundaries due to enhanced relationship, sensitisation provided by Wag. Morale is high however unfortunately only villagers from Kapanda area continued to refuse to have any relationship with Wag management.

Other than the fence, Wag has been implementing a number of income-generating activities for peripheral communities living close to the boundary.

The activities include gravity-fed irrigation so that community members can start growing vegetables for sale, beekeeping, tree-planting, chicken rearing and goat pass-on programmes which are currently very active.

These livelihood initiatives have changed people’s habits from simply being charcoal burners to go-getters. Now people are busy growing crops, selling them and eating what they need as part of food and nutritional security.

“It’s a real win-win situation for both the people and the long-term sustainability of the reserve,” said Moses Kephar, Wag Extension Officer.

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