The earth is currently experiencing a decline in species of wildlife due to human activity and climate change. The rate of extinction is forecast to increase even more in the next half century. Conservation is, and will increasingly become, a crucial practice for ensuring the future survival of wild fauna and flora. Without conservation, various species will cease to exist, leading to biodiversity loss – a decline in “the number of genes, species, individual organisms within a given species, and biological communities within a defined geographic area, ranging from the smallest ecosystem to the global biosphere”. Biodiversity enhances the efficiency by which ecological communities capture resources, produce biomass, and recycle essential nutrients. As such, this diversity plays a crucial role in the resilience of an ecosystem against environmental changes and in ensuring the continued provision of ecological services (i.e., the benefits that the natural world provides to human society). Beyond endangering species via population losses, biodiversity loss can cause long-term ecological problems such as creating sex-ratio imbalances and slowing the reproduction rate of vulnerable species. Biodiversity is also important for scientific and aesthetic purposes due to the increasing rarity of certain species in various environments.
There has been a 69% overall decline in the numbers of fish, mammals, birds, and reptiles worldwide since 1970. Scientists have estimated that species are going extinct at a rate that’s roughly 100 times higher than normal, and this is leading to the collapse of ecosystems – something which could threaten the very survival of humankind, as the human population depends directly or indirectly on wildlife for survival. Malawi – once known for its abundant array of wildlife – is a sobering example of the rapid decline in wild fauna and flora. Unrestricted hunting, habitat destruction for agriculture, and illegal poaching fuelled by readily available weapons destroyed the area’s biodiversity throughout the 1900s, but notably between 1960 and 1990. For instance, it was found that 9% of the 458 fish species assessed in Lake Malawi are at high risk of extinction, with three out of the four species already being critically endangered. This has wider implications for the food security of the lakeshore population, which relies on the fish industry as a source of livelihood. Malawi’s elephant population has declined from 12,000 in 1970 to 4,000 in the 1980s and is now down to 1,600. This has had a further negative effect of a significant decline in the already struggling tourism industry. The country’s forest cover has been reduced from 47% in 1975 to 36% in 2005. This is the highest deforestation rate in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, representing a net loss of some 30,000 to 40,000 hectares per year. Deforestation has catastrophic effects on wildlife, biodiversity, weather patterns, and ecosystems, leading to land degradation and flooding, among other detrimental consequences.
In an attempt to solve this crisis, different policies and frameworks have emerged to manage wildlife and protected areas in Malawi. This includes legislation that uses a multi-sectoral approach and strives for inclusion of various stakeholders in wildlife management. The success stories resulting from these efforts include public–private partnerships involving African Parks, the Malawi government through the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and local communities. One such partnership led to the successful translocation of 263 elephants and 431 additional wild animals – including impala, buffalo, warthog, sable, and waterbuck – from Liwonde National Park to Kasungu National Park. Kasungu is the second largest national park in Malawi. In the 1970s, the park was home to about 1,200 elephants; these were reduced to 49 by 2015 due to poaching. The translocation of elephants from Liwonde thus presented the opportunity to re-establish a thriving elephant population in Kasungu. Other success stories emerging from this partnership include translocation of cheetah from South Africa to Liwonde and Majete National Parks as well as the translocation of elephants from Majete to Nkhotakota Game Reserve – one of the largest translocation efforts in history. These efforts have resulted in increased game visits and have, consequently, boosted both local and international tourism.
Another success story in partnerships in wildlife management involves efforts to protect Malawi’s pangolin population. Pangolins are the most trafficked animals on the planet, and they are poached for their meat, scales, and organs, which are mainly used in traditional Chinese medicine. Currently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as a critically endangered species. The government of Malawi, in partnership with journalists, community police, the Malawi Judiciary, and the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust through the Animal Care Project (an organisation specialising in the protection and care of animals) is actively involved in the management and protection of pangolins through provision of rehabilitation and veterinary services. Using different media platforms, the partnership has led to an increase in awareness around protected species – especially pangolins. The involvement of local communities and community police has seen an increase in the reporting of cases of pangolin trafficking, and the Judiciary has been imposing stiffer penalties on the culprits. In this partnership, Animal Care is actively involved in monitoring and providing veterinary and rehabilitation services to pangolins that are rescued from traffickers.
Photo: A pangolin
Another example of a successful partnership involves the conservation and restoration of the Mulanje Cedar (Widdringtonia whytei) – Malawi’s national tree – which occurs naturally on Mulanje Mountain. It is a high-value timber which has been over-exploited, leading to a drastic decline in the species. In 2019, it was found that only 7 trees remained out of the 64,000 trees that were reported four years prior. These trees only survived because they were in hard-to-reach areas of the mountain. Since then, conservation efforts have taken off with a collaborative project involving Global Trees Campaign (GTC), Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT), the Forestry Research Institute of Malawi (FRIM), and local communities. Efforts to restore this species of flora have involved generating new knowledge about the Mulanje Cedar, restoring populations of Mulanje Cedar on Mulanje Mountain and in other areas, and generating sustainable income sources for local people who were relying on timber harvested from these trees. As a result of these collective efforts, communities surrounding Mulanje Mountain have created tree nurseries and are producing seedlings that are not only being planted on the mountain, but also in Viphya Plateau plantation, on Dedza and Zomba mountains, and in other areas in Malawi with higher altitudes and acidic soils. While the exact number of Mulanje Cedars planted to date as part of these restoration efforts is unknown, as of 2022, 500,000 seedlings have been reintroduced into mountainous areas. In addition, Raiply, a private timber company, has reportedly planted a combined total of 20,000 hectares of this tree species in different parts of the country.
Photo: A Mulanje Cedar
Looking at the wider African context, those parks that are managed by African Parks – a non-profit conservation organisation, operating in 12 African countries, that rehabilitates and manages national parks and protected areas in partnership with governments and local communities – are doing very well in terms of restoration of wildlife and expanding tourism. However, the same cannot be said of national parks in Malawi that are solely managed by the government, as stated by a representative from the DNPW (personal communication via telephone, 16 February 2023). There is thus a need for governments to explore collaborations that equip government staff and increase local capacity for conservation. Considering that the DNPW has well-trained veterinary staff and scientists, with proper capacitation it is possible for them to reproduce what these public–private partnerships are doing. While these partnerships are beneficial, it is essential that government departments are able to continue the good work once the project collaborations have ended so as to ensure the sustainability of conservation efforts. One strategy is to maximise community involvement in co-management of biodiversity and wildlife. This commitment and a sense of shared ownership on the part of communities can then also be leveraged to counteract illegal trade, deforestation, poaching, and encroachment.
Another key strategy that governments can employ to improve conservation and wildlife management efforts is to grow the tourism sector. African nations have been talking of diversifying their economies by growing the tourism sector for years. While a good environment for tourism is being fostered, there is a need to remain cognisant of ensuring these efforts not only benefit wildlife but also benefit people more directly via growth in the economy. A problematic trend in tourism is that tourists pay international online operators, but a lot of this money does not go directly to the country in question. While the number of tourists may grow through these efforts, this does not necessarily translate to economic benefits on the ground. Consequently, future partnerships should not only focus on growing the tourism sector by increasing the number of tourist visits in the hopes of securing more funds for wildlife conservation, but they should also consider looking at the direct financial benefits that host countries of these protected areas should get. This can bolster countries’ conservation efforts while simultaneously providing more direct economic benefits.
Success stories in the co-management of wildlife by governments and other stakeholders are examples of the great potential partnerships have in contributing to wildlife protection and restoration efforts. However, there is a need to ensure that future collaborations take a holistic approach that ensures partnership efforts are sustainable, local capacity is increased, and the strategies are reproducible so as to ensure continuity. In addition, these collaborations should not only benefit the natural world and its human inhabitants via ecosystem services, but partnerships should be designed in such a way that they reduce human-wildlife conflict and there is a direct economic benefit both locally and internationally. This will serve as an incentive to encourage key stakeholders to participate in collaborations, as they can boost the economy through tourism and also provide alternative livelihoods to communities in and around protected areas. Effective, sustainable wildlife management and conservation requires a shift away from siloed efforts towards mutually beneficial partnerships.