Mark Stratton goes to this vast central Malawian park, following the ‘500 Elephants’ translocation by African Parks Network, to see how the elephants are adapting to their new home and the impact their arrival has had on the reserve as a wildlife destination. (All images by Mark Stratton)
In the pied shadows of miombo woodland, a solitary, faraway elephant seems slim pickings for a game drive. The young tusker lingers on the ashes of a recent fire, wriggling his trunk towards us to scent a species that, historically, hasn’t exactly made his life easy. After a momentary sniff, he melts backward into the tangled brachystegia and mopane thicket.
“They are shy. It’s taking them time to settle in,” says Nkhotakota guide Emmanuel Kandiero. “I don’t think they like people after the trauma of the translocation”.
Like the 300 Spartans defying the odds at Thermopylae, this male is one of the much-hyped ‘500 Elephants’ project defying Africa’s elephantine crisis. He arrived into Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve as part of the greatest translocation of this species in African conservation history.
The 1800 sq km Nkhotakota is a four hour drive north of Lilongwe, in the Rift Valley hills west of Lake Malawi. Several decades ago it housed 1500 elephants and numerous other species. Yet by 2015, when the non-profit conservation organisation African Parks assumed management for Nkhotakota, around only 80 elephants remained.
They were facing local extirpation by poaching and surrounding settlements encroaching onto the reserve. Even now, despite African Parks’ increased anti-poaching patrols, local poachers’ charcoal fires can still be seen smouldering.
The ‘500 Elephants’ project is the brainchild of African Parks. Arriving in two tranches from 2016-17, around 520 elephants were translocated here from Liwonde and Majete National Parks, accompanied by 1400 other animals such as warthog and impala. In order to help the imported wildlife to settle in, African Parks has improved security and increased the number of anti-poaching patrols.
“When I was first a scout here,” says Emmanuel, “I used to hear half-a-dozen gunshots each night. Now it’s rare.” African Parks is also well underway to completing a solar-powered electrified fence around the reserve, pictured below.
“The elephants’ arrival is going to change our experience,” says David Kelly, the Irish-Malawian manager of Tongole Lodge, where I am to spend two nights. “Tongole has always been a retreat to be with nature, but now we can really offer safaris,” he enthuses.
Greeted with a ‘rock shandy’ of angostura bitters, ginger ale and soda upon arrival, I’m soon ensconced in one of Tongole’s four riverside suites. In the African bush I like to feel connected to the great outdoors, and these large doorless and windowless suites, set among kuduberry and camelfoot trees, invite the sounds of Nkhotakota inside.
Each stone-walled suite is named after local birds: mine was katawa (hammerkop). Private wooden decks overlook the River Bua, swollen and toffee-coloured from recent rainfall. Guards ferry guests between the reception and rooms at night, though the only interloper I encounter in camp is John — the resident vervet monkey, who always seems to be in a hurry.
After lunch, David shows me recent footage of elephants wallowing on the Bua’s muddy banks just below the lodge. “These are original elephants,” he says. How could he be so certain they are the ‘originals’? “See, the one with the broken tusk was here,” he says. “We call him ‘Short Tusk’ and he’s been around for years”.
Next morning I take a pre-breakfast canoe from the lodge, spotting crocodiles and paddling beneath the thatched penthouses of hammerkop nests. “Local myths say if you kill a hammerkop you will be struck by lightning,” says Emmanuel. “Such myths help protect the wildlife”.
He offers more bush tales during a walk focusing on the minutiae of safari: from analysing civet scat to imagining how delighted the dung beetles will be when the new elephants arrive.
Then later, on a further game-drive, I enjoy another hard-won elephant sighting, this time a female and her youngster. “Seventeen babies have been born to the 2016 intake already, bringing us to almost 600 elephants,” says Emmanuel.
But he stresses the urgency of completing the fencing to facilitate local trust and acceptance of this project. “Some conflict remains,” he concedes. “Last year a matriarch killed a local lady”. But, even then, the impressive new fence will not necessarily guarantee keeping the new arrivals inside the reserve. In a few places certain miscreants have bent over the fence-posts by deftly sliding their enormous feet under the bottom electrified strand to avoid getting shocked.
These conflicts aside, the elephants’ presence should bring economic benefits to the local communities. Tongole’s co-owner Bentry Kalanga (pictured below) founded the lodge in honour of his 16-year-old son, Vitu, who tragically died in a car crash in the UK. “I wanted to do something positive in his name,” explains Bentry, back at the lodge.
With Vitu’s girlfriend’s father, David Cole, they set up the UK-registered charity, the Tongole Foundation. “The aim is to create a sustainable lodge business to provide employment and use this income to support an education charity for local schools. We need to educate children on how wildlife can benefit them so they will be the next generation of conservationists,” he says.
Departing Tongole next morning, we call by the new classrooms the foundation and charitable donations have funded at Mwalawatongole School, on the edge of the reserve. The bush telegraph had reached Mwalawatongole as all its 345 pupils drawn from local communities gather under a gigantic Mutundo tree to greet us with song.
The recently rebuilt classrooms are still acquiring furnishing, yet the children’s infectious enthusiasm fills the school with life. New toilets have been built alongside accommodation for teachers, ensuring they can make it to work during the rainy season.
The school also has a wildlife mentor. “He teaches the children that poaching is bad and they will not benefit from tourism if they do not look after wild animals,” says head-teacher, Laston Banda.
There are, of course, two sides to the coin of the ‘500 Elephant’ translocation, and I wanted to understand what necessitated one of the donor parks to surrender such a large population of elephants to Nkhotakota.
It’s a long drive to Malawi’s most popular national park, Liwonde: three-hours south of Lake Malawi on the hippo-choked River Shire. The 580 sq km park is a sweltering assemblage of wetland habitats and miombo woodland. Arriving at the riverside Mvuu Lodge, two hippos are squaring off mid-river while others graze in broad daylight on the mushy-pea green sodden grasslands co-inhabited by large crocs. From the lodge’s viewing deck late afternoon, I drink a cold kuche kuche beer and watch elephants meander out to devour fallen mangos.
African Parks also manages Liwonde, and besides translocating elephants to Nkhotakota they have already brought in four cheetahs in 2016 and this year will reintroduce lions and leopards.
The impact of elephant overcrowding is highly visible, with the heavy damage of trees bent over or debarked. David Nangoma, the community and extension manager for African Parks, explains why Liwonde’s elephant population was unsustainable. Of the 520 translocated from both here and Majete, he says Liwonde contributed around 300.
“We had over 800 elephants, which was far too many and ecologically bad for other species. Their destructiveness was affecting the future of this ecosystem and the surrounding human communities.
“A report recommended we reduce the population to around 350-400, and Nkhotakota was identified as the perfect outlet, but only if the reserve was secure because otherwise this would feel like sending them to be poached.”
By sharing this translocation with Majete National Park, however, he fears the problem will resurface. “It has left us with around 560, still too high. Already by August 2017 they have bred quickly, back to near 600. In 10 years’ time we will be back where we started”.
But Nkhotakota is three times the size of Liwonde and he believes the former will be able to accommodate further translocations in the future. He suggests that with better security and management, other Malawian national parks such as Kuzungu and Nyika could be suitable candidates to receive Liwonde’s excess elephants.
“We’re also considering elephant family planning,” he laughs. “But Malawi is very conservative and the community leaders are uncertain about this”.
Late that afternoon, as I watched fish eagles picking off baby crocodiles on the Shire, I spotted three newborn babies among a dozen-strong elephant herd on the river bank. Will those youngsters be plucked from here to begin a new life in Nkhotakota, I wonder?
Malawi Department of Tourism: www.malawitourism.com
South African Airways: www.flysaa.com offer flights from London to Lilongwe via Johannesburg.
Tongole Wilderness Lodge (Nkhotakota): www.tongole.com
Mvuu Lodge (Liwonde): www.cawsmw.com
African Parks: www.african-parks.org
500 Elephants Project: https://500elephants.org