Robert-Jan van Ogtrop
In July 2017, I was fortunate to be on the ground in Malawi for a few days of the second and final phase of the historic elephant translocation. This project was an extraordinary human undertaking in moving a total of 520 elephants from Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve across 650 km to their new home in Malawi. This successful translocation, which also included 2,000 other animals, was done to help revive Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve – a park that once had over 1,500 elephants but by 2015, after decades of poaching, fewer than 100 remained.
Moving more than 500 of the world’s largest land mammals who can weigh up to seven tonnes each by truck, over single-lane highways, bridges and overpasses, through one of Africa’s smallest, densest, and poorest countries may sound extreme, even bordering on the absurd. But where these elephants were coming from and where they were headed is a real story of hope and optimism, revival and restoration; it’s a story of nature’s return.
Standing in Majete Wildlife Reserve with helicopters overhead, radios buzzing, and the ground crew in position with the goal of capturing 150 of the 430 resident elephants, I recalled how just over 10 years ago, not one elephant lived here – they had all been hunted out by the 1990’s. And that wasn’t all. The last rhino was seen in the 1970’s, lions and leopards had long been eradicated, and only a few surviving antelope remained in a forest that was also under threat of being felled for charcoal. Majete had become a wasteland with hardly any employees, no tourists, and the park had generated zero revenue in three consecutive years since 2000. It was a forgotten and lonely place with no perceived value at all.
Or was it? After three years of patient and persuasive negotiations by one of our co-founders, the late Dr. Anthony Hall-Martin, African Parks entered a 25-year agreement with the Malawi Department of National Parks and Wildlife to manage Majete – the first park to fall under our management. Extreme measures were taken, including a series of reintroductions of rhinos, elephants and lions, amounting to a total of 2,900 animals from 14 different species. Ranger teams were trained and well-equipped, laws were enforced and abided by, and community projects were implemented delivering education, healthcare and alternative livelihoods to a once severely underserved community.
The elephant population has grown so much in Majete that this once barren landscape is now able to provide new life to its neighbouring park, Nkhotakota, up north, which not only shares the same painful past, but is now on the path to realising the same hopeful future.
A conservation-led economy started to emerge – and the currency was nature herself. With the return of wildlife, tourists started to visit. With the increase of visitors, additional people needed to be employed. Fast forward 14 years and Majete is now home to over 12,000 animals; more than 9,000 tourists visited the park in 2017, half of whom were Malawian, bringing with them over US$550,000 which feeds back to the management of Majete and community projects. And in a remarkable sign of community buy-in, and value being realised, not one rhino or elephant has been lost to poaching since 2003. The elephant population has grown so much in Majete that this once barren landscape is now able to provide new life to its neighbouring park, Nkhotakota, up north, which not only shares the same painful past, but is now on the path to realising the same hopeful future.
Our success in Majete no doubt led to the Malawian Government granting us management mandates for both Liwonde and Nkhotakota in 2015, as they were able to peer into a not too distant future and see how a park can be restored, and the benefits derived for wildlife and people alike.
You’ll see throughout this report the various levels of restoration that are underway within all the parks under our management, from the extreme species translocations and reintroductions, to the more nuanced impacts effective law enforcement has on providing security for local people.
And what we’re seeing is that where nature is allowed to return, lies a better existence for all. We were deeply honoured and grateful to have His Royal Highness Prince Harry join us and strengthen our overall organisation as President of African Parks, and Hansjörg Wyss, who also joined the African Parks Board of Directors. We have experienced some incredible financial and conservation growth over the year and a key focus moving forward is cultivating the right talent, especially within the countries in which we work, to maintain our top quality effective park management. Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the entire African Parks staff for their dedication, passion and hard work.
On behalf of myself and everyone at African Parks, I extend my gratitude to all of those who have supported us over the years, and who continue with us along this journey into a wild and hopeful future.Back >