Published on Article and photos by Morgan Trimble. A public–private partnership saves Majete Wildlife Reserve from collapse and provides a model for further success. Bone dry in Majete It was the end of November and the rains were late. The landscape was brown and desolate. The smell of death hung in the 40 ̊C air […]

Published on Article and photos by Morgan Trimble.

A public–private partnership saves Majete Wildlife Reserve from collapse and provides a model for further success.

Bone dry in Majete

M.Trimble Majete Lion Collaring-5It was the end of November and the rains were late. The landscape was brown and desolate. The smell of death hung in the 40 ̊C air at Majete Wildlife Reserve in southern Malawi. With so little vegetation remaining, it was easy to spot the corpses of unfortunate warthog and waterbuck—the most drought sensitive animals—desiccated on the parched earth, stiffened scraps of hide cloaking the outline of their skeletons like old sheets hastily thrown over the furniture in an abandoned house.

Park rangers hustled to sniff out and remove the carcasses in the vicinity of Majete’s new tourism facilities, the Thawale luxury tented camp, the community campsite, and the Mwembezi restaurant. Much as safari-goers flock to the bar for a cold Carlsberg, waterholes built for game viewing attract the starving animals, desperate for a drink. Many die nearby.

Though gloomy, this tale of death triggered by the late rains is only temporary and is an entirely different horror than that transpiring across many of Malawi’s conservation areas.

Many people, few resources

It’s also a frightening allegory for Malawi’s 16.5 million people, dangerously reliant on shrinking shares of natural resources. Malawi is a palpably crowded country where the mostly rural population relies heavily on the land for food, fuel, building materials, and products to barter or sell.

In health, education, and standard of living, Malawi ranks 14th worst in the world. The GDP per capita is a measly $715, and nearly two-thirds of the population makes do on less than $1.25 a day. Malnourishment stunts the growth of about half of kids younger than five, and their chances of getting medical attention are slim. For every 50,000 Malawians, there is one doctor.

Despite the destitution, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more friendly and affable group of people. Malawi could hardly be more deserving of its nickname: “the warm heart of Africa”. Yet this warm-hearted population continuously initiates new members. With an average five to six children born to each Malawian woman, by 2030, an additional 10 million mouths will demand food. But where will they find it?

Malawi’s responsibility to conserve its wildlife grinds uncomfortably against a reality in which the backbone of the environment is buckling under the pressure to meet people’s basic needs. Sadly, 20% of the population lives on what the UN deems “severely” degraded land. Malawi boasts five national parks and four wildlife reserves, covering just over a tenth of its land. Yet, people are desperate for more farmland. Many view conservation areas as the last remaining places to chop down trees for charcoal and to kill wild animals to cook on it.

When half a country’s children are malnourished, it’s easy to say that the needs of the people should come before wildlife. Yet abandoning the parks to be resettled by the high-density villages surrounding them would be a short-lived stopgap against an escalating resource crunch. Clearly, Malawi must move away from its heavy reliance on the land and develop other avenues of income.

Tourism is one possibility, and international visitors, most of whom want an African safari experience, expect thriving parks. Combining “big five” safaris with Lake Malawi’s beach charm would give the country a unique offering. (For what it’s worth, the Huffington Post crowned Lake Malawi the number one emerging travel destination for 2015.)

A change of fates for Majete

Back in Majete, Jimmy Chikombe, a talented safari guide who left his guiding job in Kasungu National Park for better opportunities at Majete, clamoured up a rocky hill jutting out from the otherwise flat savanna. His ward for the afternoon—a single tourist*—clamoured more clumsily behind him, and an armed ranger observantly brought up the rear. Over a few weeks together and despite the thirsty conditions, Chikombe had skilfully presented a drama showcasing the beauty, excitement, and occasional violence of the bush. A fiery sunset over the distant hills and the full moon rising over the legendary Shire river, Malawi’s largest, would make a fitting finale.

As they crested the hill, a crashing sound sprang from the bushes nearby. They cautiously rock hopped towards the noise to find, luckily not an angry leopard, but a whole clan of startled hyenas hurtling down the hill. The hyena, with their comical, loping gaits, scattered through the woodlands, surprising other animals as they ran—warthogs, kudu, impala, and even a majestic sable antelope darted out from their path.

A decade ago, the hyena would have been so much lonelier. Not only were there no tourists, spotted hyena were the only large carnivores still clinging to existence in Majete. Lion, leopard, and African wild dog had been extirpated. In 2003, the population of large mammals was less than 4% of what it is today. A few of the more elusive species, like bushbuck and duiker, persisted in small numbers, and the banks of the Shire supported just a few hippo, and crocodile. Poachers had exterminated Majete’s elephant, black rhino, buffalo, eland, sable, and hartebeest, and others were on their way out.

Tizola Moyo is a statuesque man who speaks with a calm voice and pleasant smile discordant with his immaculate uniform, beret, and high-powered rifle. As Majete’s head of security, Moyo leads a team that conducts 3,000 patrols annually, keeps tabs on each rhino daily (Moyo can recognize individuals by their footprints), monitors the whereabouts of the lions so they don’t eat the rhino trackers, and escorts tourists in the bush. He also conducts “behind the scenes tours” for guests that want to learn about Majete’s history.

“Poaching was a major problem in Majete up to 2003”, Moyo explained, dragging an armload of confiscated guns out of a vault filled with hundreds more amid mounds of tangled snares and vicious-toothed gin traps. He highlighted the components of the homemade muzzleloaders—slapped together scraps of pipe and wood, rusted and splintery.

Refugees from the civil war in neighbouring Mozambique had poured into Malawi in the late 1980s and found asylum in camps neighbouring Majete. By 1990, refugees made up 40% of the population of Mwanza and 21% of Chikwawa, two districts bordering the reserve. The refugees intensified environmental degradation in an already resource-stressed region, and they brought a hunger that the camps couldn’t sate. They also brought automatic weapons and the knowhow to quickly craft crude muzzleloaders like the guns in Moyo’s vault.

Moyo held up a makeshift bullet—a hacked off section of construction rebar. “They used these for elephants”.

The influx of firearms totally changed the playing field. Towards the end of October 1995, Moyo, then just a ranger, lost his best friend in a gun battle. They had located a group of poachers encamped in the bush. Upon confrontation, the poachers immediately attacked with AK-47s. The rangers’ pair of bolt-action rifles and total of 10 rounds proved useless, and they fled but not fast enough. The poachers shot and killed Lennox Mabocas before escaping.

Such grave danger, coupled with lack of supplies, inadequate pay, and terrible living standards, zapped the morale and efficacy of Majete’s staff. The animals of Majete didn’t stand a chance. Besides the poaching, people had also begun encroaching on the reserve’s land. They cultivated fields inside the boundary and chopped down trees for timber and charcoal.

Majete’s value for conservation had been hamstrung. There were barely any animals, 10 employees, no tourists, and no income.

2003 marked a turning point. Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) awarded a Johannesburg-based non-profit, African Parks, the management mandate for Majete. The agreement marked the first privatization of a wildlife area in Malawi. African Parks brought management expertise as well as ample resources, new equipment, and training for the rangers. In their first year, they confiscated hundreds of illegal guns during an amnesty period in which people could surrender weapons without punishment.

African Parks also started building a fence, at first, just a small sanctuary to hold reintroduced wildlife. By 2007, they had fenced the whole reserve. They reintroduced upwards of 2,500 animals of 14 species to re-establish most that had been lost. Notably, black rhino, elephant, buffalo, lion, and leopard (the tourist attracting “big five”) now thrive in Majete. African Parks also built 330km of new roads and a suite of tourist facilities. In 2014, Majete attracted more than 8,000 visitors, and next year management aims to recoup at least half of the reserve’s operational budget ($930,000) through tourism revenue.

In a program described passionately by Samuel Kamoto, Majete’s community extension manager, as “building a constituency for conservation”, African Parks does its best to support the communities surrounding the park too—some 140,000 people distributed among 85 villages. They allow people to legally collect renewable resources, like thatch grass, from the reserve at certain times. A new heritage centre sells community-produced crafts and honey to visitors.

Kamoto said, “If we win the young ones,” many of whom, despite living on Majete’s boundary, have never seen wildlife, “and they grow with a mind for conservation, we will succeed.” Besides hosting school field trips and visiting local classrooms to distribute educational material, African Parks provides scholarships for deserving high school and university students.

Are public–private partnerships the future?

Unfortunately, most of Malawi’s parks and reserves resemble Majete prior to African Parks’ involvement. Rampant poaching, illegal timber collection, and encroachment threaten their future. Paul Taylor, head of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (WESM), explained that the authorities lack leadership, financial resources, and priorities, leaving their rangers without uniforms, boots, tents, water bottles, radios, vehicles, and often, pay checks. Demoralized park staff are unmotivated, and they too are sometimes driven to poaching. Taylor asserts, “WESM and other wildlife experts consider that what is called public–private partnership (PPP) is the only hope for Malawi’s wildlife areas and Majete is a perfect example.”

While searching for a lioness in Majete in need of a new GPS collar, Dr Amanda Salb, the DNPW’s American-born veterinarian, explained that her job should focus on supporting research and monitoring disease. However, she had been forced to reschedule the lion collaring several times because her work with the Wildlife Emergency Response Unit (WERU) sees her frenetically traveling all over the country rescuing animals—often valuable black rhino and elephant nastily entangled in snares.

WERU itself is a public–private partnership; it’s a joint initiative between DNPW and the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, an NGO that among other things, secures donations to support Salb’s work and provides medical supplies to make emergency response callouts free of charge.

Malawi’s government agrees with Taylor and WERU that public–private partnerships are the only way forward. Director of DNPW, Brighton Kumchedwa, speaking at Majete’s December stakeholders’ meeting said: “Government is trying to make parks socially and economically relevant. In order to make parks successful, we need to follow the model of Majete. We’re proud of our decision to work with the private sector to manage parks more effectively, and we’re proud of the success story. Government is very grateful for African Parks for coming to Malawi.”

Kumchedwa also explained that the DNPW would soon open Liwonde National Park and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve for tenders for public–private partnerships, with African Parks the most likely partner.

Speaking about Liwonde, Taylor cautions, “If they do not, then that park will be wiped out within a year.”

African Parks is also eager to expand their portfolio in Malawi. In December, they promoted Patricio Ndadzela from manager of Majete to the newly created post of country director for African Parks in Malawi. Ndadzela assures, “The Majete story and its success [is] a model we want to replicate for Nkhotakota and Liwonde.” For both parks, Ndadzela highlights plans for restoration and tourism development and suggested for Nkhotakota “creation of a national elephant sanctuary for Malawi”.

Cautious optimism

However, the public–private partnership model isn’t perfect. In 2007, Project African Wilderness (PAW) signed an agreement with the DNPW to manage Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve. The project made great strides building infrastructure and working with communities. However, the partnership is no more; PAW’s funding dried up in 2011.

Taylor explained the unfortunate reason, “Its chief fundraiser in England suddenly died.” The manager at Mwabvi kept things going for a while, but he soon ran into personal troubles of his own. “He stripped Mwabvi of its moveable assets which he was legally entitled to do and returned to South Africa with his lions”, five animals he had been breeding in a large enclosure. Mwabvi’s future remains uncertain.

In December Malawi’s rains finally arrived—torrential downpours across much of the country that drowned already stressed crops and displaced a few hundred thousand people. The Shire burst its banks. The president declared half of Malawi a disaster zone. Some experts blamed unbridled deforestation for the extent of the damage. Food shortages will be even worse this year, and it is ever more apparent that wholesale reliance on degraded land is untenable for the growing population. Until the government can solve its resource problem, a private sector bailout seems to be the only hope for conservation.

In Majete, death of the animals unable to hold out for the rains, though sad, is just part of nature’s ebb and flow. By contrast, vultures, hyenas, and other scavengers had a field day. The rains broke the dry spell without major damage, and with the rains, the warthog and waterbuck populations will boom once more. The reintroduced lions and leopards will hunt them. The tourists will shell out money to watch in awe.

Just like people, wildlife populations respond according to the resources available to them. So do conservation areas. Maybe Malawi’s will be rescued by private–public partnerships.

(Visit for accompanying photography.)

*That tourist was me. I spent two weeks on a volunteer photographic assignment to refresh the African Parks image library for Majete, which they depend on to promote tourism and garner donor support from around the world for their conservation projects across Africa. African Parks provided my transport and accommodation.