Alex Chunga - Friend of the Month
Our October Friend of the Month is Alex Chunga, the Principal Parks and Wildlife Officer at Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), who has been working closely with us to mitigate human elephant conflict in that country.
Alex Chunga (right) with EPI Foundations’ Hugo Jachmann on his recent visit to Malawi.
Tell us a little bit about how you grew up, and where your passion for conservation was ignited.
I spent my early years of life as a rural boy, just 40 kilometers outside of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city. Growing up then, I had a passion for bird hunting, using a sling shot, where I developed some accuracy in shooting birds. When I was not bird hunting, I was at the river fishing, using a line and bait! So, after completing secondary school education, when I saw an opportunity to go to a wildlife conservation college, I grabbed it with both hands. Since then, the only job I have known and done is wildlife conservation.
In all the years you’ve been working in Malawi’s parks, what has been the highlight of your career?
There are so many highlights in my career that I can write about! However, I can mention the role I played in turning around the fortunes of Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. The Reserve was on the path to the abyss due to, among other things, mismanagement, and very little attention was being paid to it. Then, Head Office decided to give it a last attempt, and they sent me there as a manager. When I got there, I discovered that one of the major problems was in-house poaching, where the rangers themselves were involved in most of the illegal activities.
I decided to take the bull by the horn and arrest some of the rangers who were involved. Instantly, discipline started to return among the field staff, and within two years, wildlife started to appear in the park, and investors started to come in and build lodges.
A few years later, the international NGO African Parks saw the potential and came in to take over the management, and today, the Reserve is a huge success story.
Is there any story you can share that keeps you hopeful for wildlife conservation?
By 2013, Malawi was a hotbed for wildlife crime, and wildlife populations in most protected areas were in decline.
The DNPW Team at Head Office decided to take bold steps to reverse the trend and, in partnership with other players, undertook several strategies, some of which included strengthening wildlife laws, formulating an Inter-Agency Committee on Combating Wildlife Crime, and many others.
Today, wildlife crime levels in Malawi have significantly reduced, and animal populations have increased in most protected areas. I have been part of the team that has brought about this success. So, this keeps me hopeful that, with commitment, it is possible to bring about change.
What is the situation of Malawi’s elephants today, and what are some of the biggest threats they face?
The situation of Malawi’s elephants is that overall, the population has recovered from the decline of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and they are on a path to growth. In all the protected areas, the numbers have been increasing to the extent that some elephants have had to be relocated due to overpopulation. This in turn creates increased cases of human-elephant conflict, (HEC).
As you say, the complex issue of human-elephant conflict has become a growing problem in Malawi. What do you think are some of the most practical solutions?
Some of the practical solutions to Malawi’s HEC include:
• Erection of electrified fences
• Increased capacity to respond when elephants break out of protected areas.
• Growing crops that elephants do not like, along protected area boundaries.
• Continued and increased community awareness
Do you remain optimistic that coexistence between people and elephants is possible in Malawi?
Though difficult, coexistence between people and elephants remains possible. It will require some huge investments, but eventually, people and elephants will live in some kind of harmony.