Malawi’s Elephants: 5 Decades on
The EPI Foundation’s Hugo Jachmann has just returned from Malawi, where he first worked in conservation in the late 1970s. Hugo was on an assessment mission, to see how the EPI Foundation can help Malawi manage Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC). Here are his reflections on elephant conservation in Malawi then…and now.
Hugo Jachmann in Kasungu National Park in 1980, holding a baby duiker whose mother was killed by a leopard.
The jacarandas are still purple and gorgeous, the colours and smells the same. It was good to be back in Malawi, my old home. But the drive into Lilongwe felt much shorter, probably because the city has expanded rapidly in the direction of the airport. And one striking difference with the late 1970s and early 1980s is that these days everyone is looking at a small screen, apparently unaware of the world around them.
Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) has a new headquarters, but there are many familiar faces there. New or old, I could not have received a warmer welcome; I was made to feel like the lost son coming home. DNPW is still a family of often dedicated and passionate people, working on small salaries that don’t keep up with inflation. I spent a couple of days in fruitful meetings with the DNPW’s Director, Brighton Kumchedwa and the Principal Parks and Wildlife Officer, Alex Chunga, discussing how the EPI Foundation can use its Darwin Initiative (DI) grant from the UK government to help with capacity building in managing human-elephant conflict (HEC). DNPW kindly provided me with a vehicle and trusted driver to visit some of the country’s key HEC hotspots.
It was on the drive to Kasungu National Park, on Malawi’s border with Zambia to the West, that I appreciated the extent of change these past 45 years, and the challenges this poses for elephant conservation. Kasungu Town was once just a sleepy village, now it sprawls over a large area. I was flabbergasted by the increase of settlement and cultivation, all the way up to, and even into, the buffer zone of the park. In fact, Kasungu is now a mere island of wilderness, in a sea of cultivation. On the Zambian side too, bush has been converted into farms and settlements.
I can remember Kasungu in 1978, when it was home to roughly 1,200 elephants. But ivory poaching increased in the 1990s, the park was poorly managed and by 2014 its elephant population had tragically been reduced to a mere 40. That collapse in elephant numbers is reflected in the vegetation, as Kasungu is much more wooded and forested these days. In 2022 our partners African Parks, in collaboration with DNPW and our fellow partners International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), translocated 263 elephants from Liwonde National Park in southern Malawi to Kasungu. Today there are roughly 500 elephants in Kasungu.
Elephants in Kasungu National Park photographed by Hugo Jachmann between 1978 and 1980.
So, this is a success story of elephant recovery and good management, but this in turn creates new challenges. The erosion of the buffer zones, and the hard interface between people and wildlife, makes human-elephant conflict (HEC) inevitable. The elephants move outside the park almost every night, destroying crops, houses and even killing people, (three have died so far this year). During my visit to Kasungu, 80 elephants were causing havoc in the Chulu area to the north of the park, and shortly afterwards Malawi’s Minister of Tourism visited the area with senior DNPW officials, to pay their respects to bereaved families. In Malawi, as in several other African countries today, HEC is a hot political issue. At Kasungu fencing is a key solution; already IFAW have built 67 kms, but that is only half of the length required. Fortunately, Kasungu has a young, passionate and dynamic enthusiastic Park Manager, Ndaona Kamango. If we can supply funding for fences and other support, its future looks bright.
Hugo Jachmann (right) with Ndaona Kamango (left), the Park Manager of Kasungu National Park.
Two days later, I was driving out of Lilongwe again, this time to the east, and the Forest Reserves of Thuma and Dedza-Salima. Again, we passed endless cultivation and human settlement. At Thuma I met Lynn Clifford, of Wildlife Action Group and her dedicated staff. Lynn is a strong Irish woman dedicated to conserving these last intact escarpment woodlands and their wildlife. (Lynn was the EPI Friend of the Month in February 2020. Read her profile here.) She arrived in Thuma 13 years ago without a penny in her pocket. Charcoal burners were destroying the forest, and encroachment was rife. There were a few dozen elephants left. Today Lynn employs 130 staff, including 46 game scouts who control poaching and charcoal burning. There are roughly 230 elephants, and other wildlife has also recovered.
Lynn has faced many setbacks, and much local opposition, largely instigated by the charcoal burners. Some years back people burned down her camp and killed several elephants. With perseverance, patience, and various community projects, the situation has stabilized. Thuma has been fenced with a cheap but effective system, but human-elephant conflict is still common around Dedza-Salima, which is only partially fenced.
Hugo Jachmann (middle) with rangers in Thuma Forest Reserve.
Of course, funding is a significant challenge for Lynn at Thuma and Dedza-Salima, just as it is in many of the conservation areas managed by DNPW. We hope that the EPI Foundation, through the Darwin Initiative, can help DNPW staff at HQ and Kasungu, build capacity to monitor and evaluate HEC, for better analysis and reporting, and these results can help reduce the damage done by elephants, and, above all, limit human injuries and casualties.
As I flew home to Europe, I looked down on the gently sloping lands of Malawi and the beautiful lake. My visit had passed too quickly. I felt overwhelming happiness at seeing old friends, and being among such friendly, hospitable and gentle people, even if Malawi remains one of the poorest countries on the planet. I also felt relief that despite the pace of economic development and human population growth, Malawi’s elephants survive in many places, and are even increasing in some areas.