Slightly over two decades, if you had ever spent time in rural Malawi, the site of wildlife was quite common outside designated or protected areas. It is a different tale now. While some overzealous hunters did manage to intrude into protected areas to hunt animals, the scale of poaching has alarmingly increased of late threatening all prospects of eco-tourism. Even a drive along Chikangawa road, depending on the time of the day, a sighting of a lion or some strange animal was not uncommon, but rare these days. Most of the areas we call national parks and game reserves were declared protected areas ago, but their existence remains threatened. They are being plundered as we see. Metaphorically, we risk mosquitoes as wildlife only, and generations ahead can simply learn about our complete disregard of conservation of nature.
There are serious economic and conservation issues that remain unresolved and, if unchecked over the next decade, much of the wildlife in the country will have vanished. Chikangawa Forest is a new addition to wanton destruction of a rich habitat of different species. Lions have terrorised outskirts of Mzuzu and pockets of Nkhata Bay bear proof of an ecosystem on a rolling crash. Tales of wanton poaching across protected countries are common stories.
Tourism remains a huge potential, particularly with respect to attracting animal lovers across the world. While we have treasured Lake Malawi, currently in the mix of oil-exploration linked border dispute, as a tourist gem, wildlife issues remain domestic in nature, except for cross-border criminals. Most of the times, I have taken time to watch animal documentaries and safari adventures. Only Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Botswana are frequently mentioned except for anecdotal maps of Africa showcasing major wildlife sanctuaries, but Malawi is never mentioned. The only time Malawi featured in some of these channels had to do with documentary marijuana farming in the highlands of Viphya. Unfortunately, a popular hit on YouTube. Drawing a parallel, over the years we tended to question why all neighbouring countries had serious mining industries unlike this country despite the obvious similar geo-physical terrain. We have known otherwise of late that such endowment exists, but was never taken seriously as alternative.
Matters of wildlife remain straightforward. Tropical savanna climate across the region, and basically the same species of animals, yet Malawi is not on a safari must-visit country. We killed all Rhinos and have had to get some from South Africa to breed at Liwonde. Few weeks ago, some Chinese national was caught with Ivory at Kamuzu International Airport. In Hongkong, a record haul of ivory was discovered by customs authorities and its origins are unclear, but unconfirmed reports indicate our south-eastern Africa region. The fact remains a huge eco-tourism potential exists, but the competition is tough and we can only take lead through a tough conservation regime and reap rewards in the future. Such are not matters of rocket science, but of simple common strategic sense.
Killings of elephants are often motivated by criminal elements and the only way to deal with criminals is excessive force. The sad reality is that there is a huge demand for Ivory-related products in China and if we are not careful, all our elephants will vanish in the next two decades. It shouldn’t be a long story to equip and train wildlife staff in a military style; otherwise, wildlife criminals will not stop at anything. It remains a high stakes game in my opinion. I guess the folks we elect in Parliament can take efforts to enact tough rules regarding such perpetrators, especially by considering that any economic recovery plan should consider wildlife conservation an integral part.
Other killings are often motivated by surrounding communities and can be dealt with strong enforcement of the law and engagement of local leaders. Successful conservation efforts draw much engaging local communities and sensitising them to the importance of conservation and its benefits while ensuring adequate resources are accorded to enforcement. At the same time, it is important to enhance competition in operations and management of parks and wildlife. At the moment, concessions have targeted a single operator, that often over charges and create few job opportunities for locals.
To get matters right, tourism has a great future and we have had debate on the subject for ages. The authorities have recognised the environment conscious visitor through encouraging development of eco-tourism. However, the eco-tourism gospel has fallen short of seriously raising the issue surrounding conservation efforts. A great habitant like Chikangawa Forest is vanishing as we silently watch and see. The same can be said of dwindling wildlife in all game reserves and national parks, epicentres of eco-tourism.