Malawi: community members, park officials seek to resolve differences

By Chares Pensulo

LIWONDE, Machinga, Malawi — Annie Shaibu lives a five-minute walk from southern Malawi’s Liwonde National Park, which teems with wildlife. Her family and others in the community depend on the park for survival but bristle at punishment the game rangers impose on those they accuse of trespassing or poaching.

“I don’t see the benefit. Animals like hippos and elephants sometimes invade our crops from the park. There have been incidences when some villages had to resort to applying poison to deal with the animals,” Shaibu, 45, said in an interview outside her house.

Loss of crops is just one of the complaints that park officials have heard from the 15 villages close to the reserve. The park is a major source of revenue for the department and the country. Local people feel left out and they view attempts by park officials to block them from poaching and trespassing in the restricted zones as unfair.

Now, the authorities are bringing in initiatives aimed at ‘giving back’ to the communities surrounding the park.

David Nangomwa (center) of African Parks, with a park ranger(left) and a village leader. Photo by Charles Pensulo

Brighton Kumchedwa, director of national parks and wildlife, said his department has come up with a ‘deliberate program’ for the communities to enhance their livelihood.

“For Instance, we implemented initiatives like goat pass-on-program, beekeeping, harvesting of selected renewable resources such as thatch grass, mushrooms and fruits. We also have a revenue sharing scheme where 25 percent of revenue generated at protected area level goes into community development projects,” he said.

The park’s website describes Liwonde as one of Africa’s best spots “for river-based wildlife like hippos, crocodiles and elephants among other animals.” The park hosts about 5,500 elephants and hippos, along with other wildlife, on 584 square kilometers (225 square miles).

David Nangomwa, community program manager for African Parks, said the issues affecting Liwonde also arise with other parks because some community members ‘poach’ within the park, which is not legal. African Parks is a non-governmental organization focused on conservation that works in partnership with the parks department.

But local authorities say that, in addition to maintaining the fences to ensure that the animals do not stray and destroy people’s crops, wildlife and park officials should do more to educate the people on how to handle and take care of the animals.

James Sitola, the traditional leader whose authority extends to 15 villages surrounding Liwonde, feels there should be proper coordination between the two parties. Failing that, it may not be possible to protect the animals, some of which are on the endangered species list.

“The park officials should be meeting us frequently and discuss so that we can be on the same page. What happens is that we chiefs are the ones who are close to the park, but it’s only visitors from far who come and visit the animals. We never do that, hence (it is) difficult for us to know how to interact with the game,” Chief Sitola said, adding that “we can only protect things that we know.”

But he was quick to say that since the park officials started working with the community, the number of elephants killed for ivory in the park has decreased compared with some years before.

“We try as much as possible to advise people to take care of the animals since my subjects also benefit from them,” Sitola said. “Things have changed in these areas and we are seeing schools and boreholes being constructed.”

Shaibu said the communities depend on the park.

“We’ve to survive and our men sometimes fish within the park. Our families also hunt for fruits and other food items from there but the rangers treat us badly,” she said.

According to Shaibu, there was tension in 2017 when two men who went fishing in the restricted zone never returned; community members felt the rangers were responsible for their disappearance.

According to the department, the unsustainable community dependence on the park’s resources has led to illegal harvesting and has diminished fish and mammal populations.

“Trees have been illegally felled for firewood and charcoal, precipitating habitat loss and ecosystem dehydration,” the department said in a published report.

“The absence of effective, well-maintained perimeter fence up to until recently has contributed to high levels of human-wildlife conflict, causing devastating consequences for humans and wildlife,” the report said.

Both parties agree that the presence of the animals has mutual benefits and has brought development projects to the area.

Brighton Chilimba of Awali village said that there is a committee from the community to assist the rangers in protecting the park.

“The park is very important to us since it brings in a lot of things. When foreigners come to see the animals, they leave behind money, and the park officials use the money to assist the surrounding villages like building of schools, thereby contributing to development of this area,” he said.

“We take a greater role in as far as protecting of the animals is concerned. Mostly, we discuss on how to protect the animals including the hippo,” Chilimba said. “There have been cases where people come to hunt the animals, so we act as ‘informal guards’ to watch and alert the authorities of potential illegal poachers.”