Our February Friend of the Month is Lynn Clifford – Field Manager at Wildlife Action Group, Malawi
What, or who, inspired you to work in conservation?
Growing up in Ireland, Africa was a place that grabbed my imagination and I dreamed of working there. Then I started reading about “Leakey’s Angels" – Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birutė Galdikas. I wanted to be like them when I grew up, living in the bush and protecting wildlife. Dreams do come true.
Why Malawi? How did you come to be working here?
Looking for a new challenge after working in Cameroon with orphaned chimpanzees, I saw an advert for a job in Malawi. I had visited Malawi in 2001 and knew there was scope to make a difference. The forests were under severe pressure from deforestation, and wildlife was being poached almost to extinction, including the few remaining elephants. The job was with Wildlife Action Group who managed two forest reserves with only about forty elephants left. I applied – and got the position as manager.
Over the course of a few years we managed to turn the situation around and now we are seeing a reduction in deforestation and poaching. We have a professional, motivated anti-poaching team, wildlife populations are increasing including the elephant population, and we have witnessed a 96% decrease in human-elephant conflict. It is now two years since we have lost an elephant due to poaching.
This is an impressive decrease in human-wildlife conflict. What has been your approach?
We worked from the ground up, by creating awareness at village level and in schools, including deploying a rapid response team in the case of elephant breakouts. In 2013 we started erecting a solar powered elephant fence, placing beehives along it, and trained and employed members of the local community to build and maintain the fence. This has empowered the communities, is providing some income through honey sales and means they are responsible and involved in conservation and ensuring personal and food security in their areas. This has created strong bonds through working side by side, with both sides benefitting.
What else is threatening the wildlife in the forest?
The biggest threats are the illegal wildlife trade, habitat destruction and lack of interlinking corridors that would allow wildlife populations to grow. These are serious and oncoming problems, and they require conservation management interventions that can be challenging.
In 2016, Malawi moved 500 elephants from the south to the north where they would have more space. Do you see this as a possible model to be used more widely in Africa, including across national borders?
The movement of 500 elephants was an incredible achievement and success in Malawi. However when looking for solutions to conservation challenges we must consider the implications of the actions. Each area is unique with its own challenges. Other factors needing consideration are terrain, costs, expertise available and species involved. So we must continue to look for and use multiple models. One must always be careful when interfering with nature: what we do today can have positive and negative effects on the future survival of wildlife and their habitats.
How engaged are young people in Malawi with the issue of conservation?
The government of Malawi and in-country conservation partners are working hand in hand to raise conservation awareness through radio, television and grassroots initiatives such as school wildlife clubs. This is proving successful and young people are interested in and proud of Malawi's wildlife. They are starting to see the benefits of conservation through the creation of jobs in tourism, which helps drive economic growth in the country. However, there is still much to be done on this front.