Looking after famous animals that bring tourists from far and wide is no pleasant game. JAMES CHAVULA writes.
It’s a sunny day, October 28. You do not need thermometer readings to know it is scorching by Lake Kazuni at the heart of the woodlands that are Majete Game Reserve in Northern Malawi.
The animals are nowhere in view. Only loose monkeys.
The silence in the background brings disconcerting questions in the mind of sight-seers.
Where are the elephants, hippos, buffalos, kudus, bushbucks, warthogs, duikers, antelopes, hyenas, lions, leopards and all the animals that travel guides invitingly associate with the picturesque wetlands that contrast spectacularly with the chilly highlands of Nyika Plateau?
Is this what poaching has done to the postcard panorama—a tourist attraction with virgin vegetation and its inhabitants in their original setting?
Not entirely true! It is still a deserved breakaway from the hustle and bustle in various settings where time is equated to money.
“Come around 5pm, you will see numerous animals drinking in the lake where hippos and birds play without fear of human beings,” a parks and wildlife assistant assures the adventure-starved pilgrims.
A visit to Kazuni Camp in April confirmed the scenic spot is never short of sight for eyes that see. The wetlands, especially the lake paved with a thick woodland and thorny shrubs, is a haven for birds and animals.
Yet, the ugly side of life faced by one of the country’s vital workforce, game rangers, plays out mostly in secret here at the 1000 m2 only patrolled by 27 guards.
Since 1976, when government declared the low-lying stretch a game reserve, not much has been heard about the livelihoods of the people who live with the famous animals that attract tourists and admirers from all corners of the earth.
“We risk a lot, but our lives are deplorable for civil servants,” said parks and wildlife assistant Stein Phiri, a spokesperson for 42 workers at the place.
In his jungle recollections, the game rangers recounted how Emmanuel Mughogho, a father of five and husband to two, was killed by a buffalo in a battle to save a whole village three weeks previously.
“In September, one of us died fighting a buffalo. He went there to save a community, but lost his life in the process,” said Phiri of the tragedy which happened near Bolero.
Even the figures testify in favour of the life-threatening nature of the job. Since July, the workforce confined in the remote jungle has recovered 17 muzzle loaders.
Ten of the man-made guns were confiscated from heavily armed poachers and the rest were voluntary surrendered by community members converted by the gospel of conservation field workers in surrounding communities where 32 people were convicted of illegal hunting.
“We risk our lives to wild animals and heavily armed poachers,” says Phiri, “But the absence of risk allowances means that we have to spend no less than two weeks in the bush to receive a field allowance of K10 000 for that period.”
Elsie Tembo, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Information, Tourism and Civic Education responsible for tourism, backs the calls for risk allowances as one of the ‘old cries” that government must seriously reconsider.
She recounted how the battle with poachers left Vwaza Game Reserve under siege last year when community members stormed the protected area, beat workers, stoned offices and stole various goods to protest the arrest of an illegal hunter.
“But condition of services in the Department of Parks and Wildlife require game rangers to work for at least 15 days to get the decried field allowance,” she said.
Some toil up to 21, according to the workers.
For them, ‘being in the field’ does not mean mixing work and relaxation in air-conditioned lakeside resorts, boardrooms and conferences where other civil servants make huge allowances, but a rumble in the jungle where they have uprooted 322 wire snares and saw their colleagues being torn apart by a ferocious animal.
In the past five years, the seemingly forsaken civil servants, whose core job often lies in hard-to-reach areas where houses are scarce and expensive, have seen government approve K5 000 ‘hardship allowances’ for teachers working in rural areas.
The Ministry of Health has borrowed a leaf, with some district officials offering health workers a similar incentive which vary from one area to another. Throughout, the ‘men in green’ have received nothing except promises.
When duty calls, Phiri’s script reveals, they sometimes have to chase wild animals and perilous hunters “empty-handed or with panga knives and clubs” due to acute shortage of guns.
At worst, shortage of proper housing has left some of these risk takers living in mud-walled thatched houses that they described as “an insult to government employees”.
An examination of their despicable living conditions indicate this could be the reason poaching continues to rob the natural heritage of endangered animals at a time government envisions jump-starting tourism and turning the good-news industry into a substitute for tobacco, the country’s largest source of forex.
For years, government has been blaming the influx of hunters in protected zones to lenient penalties stipulated in the country’s archaic laws, particularly the Wildlife Act of 2004, which is currently under review with support from the Government of Germany.
One dare add lack of motivation to the fray, for many are tales of game rangers killing the animals they are supposed to safeguard. Secretly traded as bush meat, the butchered animals have become a reliable source of money and food for both the officials and well as their neighbouring communities.
Minister of Information, Tourism and Civic Education Kondwani Nankhumwa warned that his offices has received depressing reports of some game rangers killing animals they are meant to safeguard.
“It is sad that some of you are in the forefront when it comes to poaching. The law will take its course if you are caught killing the animals,” warned the minister.
Recently, a Chinese national was fined K1 million, the highest in history, for being found in possession of ivory. But all this is a drop in the ocean for a living elephant sells at nearly $25 000 (about K12.5 million), say the wildlife authorities.
If the ministry reconsidered living conditions for its staff—while the law reform is still underway—it will help motivate the game rangers to intensify their efforts and avoid poaching.
Interestingly, Nankhumwa agrees that tourism is vital for forex generation and it cannot grow without proper infrastructure.
“I found numerous challenges when the president appointed me. Things were not okay in staff housing,” said Nakhumwa.
He promised to look at the issue of risk allowances with the decisiveness invested in alleviating the disgrace and neglect displayed by the shortage of guns.
“It does not make sense for game rangers to continue using zikwanje and zibonga when poachers are using AK47s,” he said.