The resurgence of Liwonde

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Despite many challenges over the last 25 years, Malawi’s flagship national park is experiencing a renaissance. Phil Clisby talks to Chris Badger, managing director of Central African Wilderness Safaris, whose story is intrinsically entwined with the reserve’s evolution

As we floated down the majestic Shire River, my eyes struggled to take everything in: fish eagles soared, kingfishers eyed the water for food, storks strutted, yellow baboons raced around, warthogs snuffled, waterbuck jumped, crocs slid into the water at surprising speed, hippos wallowed and elephants ripped up trees – all in the one scene.

I first visited Malawi’s Liwonde National Park in 2015, not long after African Parks Network had taken over the running of the reserve. But, already, the signs that this was a wilderness area on the rise were there for all to see.

My experience was not too dissimilar to the one that Chris and Pam Badger encountered when they first ventured across the Malawi border in 1987. “Liwonde was always a highlight,” says Chris of the mobile safaris that he and his wife ran for five years. “Right from our first visit, the place astounded us.”

The Shire, one of the great rivers of Africa, supports vast populations of hippo, crocodile and water birds – add large herds of elephant and sable to the mix and Liwonde was, and remains, says Chris, “comparable to the great wilderness destinations of Africa”.

But what makes the park really special is its setting. “Quite simply, it is the close proximity of such a variety of habitats,” explains Chris. “To the east are extensive rocky outcrops and miombo woodland, nearer to the river are large forests of cathedral mopane, and on the river itself are huge open floodplains, superb riverine thickets of fever tree, borassus palm and a profusion of shallow lagoons – essentially five or six distinct habitats all in a 600 sq km area.” The bird count – nearly 400 species – is testament to this incredible diversity.

Down but not out
While my recent trip and the Badgers’ initial impressions describe a wildlife wonderland, the intervening years saw Liwonde go into decline – the pressures of human encroachment and poaching taking their toll.

However, to its great credit, the Malawian government recognised at an early stage the need to preserve the country’s wildlife heritage – if it didn’t always have the money to back it up.

In the early 1990s, with the rapid improvement of facilities in nearby Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, Malawi began to look ‘pretty basic’, and it was evident Liwonde’s infrastructure needed improving. In 1993 the government sought a private sector partner to run and further develop Mvuu, a camp in the south of the park, that consisted of just ‘a few mud and thatch rondavels’.

Wilderness Safaris, for whom Chris and Pam worked at the time, decided to apply. “We didn’t rate our chances much because, although we had lots of passion, we had very little money,” says Chris. However, Wilderness Safaris’ enthusiasm for conservation won out and they were awarded the concession the following year – the first public/private partnership of its kind in Malawi.

While the importance of the area had been recognised two decades earlier when Liwonde National Park was proclaimed in 1973 – named after the Chief who had championed its cause – the road to the successful park we see today was, affirms Chris, a “challenging” one.

“Southern Malawi is crowded,” he says. “The relatively rich soils in the areas surrounding the park to the east and west attract many smallholder farmers and, to the north, Lake Malombe has traditionally provided many people with livelihoods through fishing.

“As the population has rapidly expanded, inevitably the essential resources of water, soil and firewood diminished and degraded, putting the park under increasing pressure.”

The local communities’ increasing dependence on its natural resources and the resultant poaching saw the park deteriorate considerably, as the Department of National Parks and Wildlife struggled with scant resources to combat it.

“Much of the poaching has been subsistence snare poaching, but a lot has also been from bush meat syndicates and armed elephant poachers,” says Chris. “Our boat safaris could almost guarantee to see several poachers’ boats on the water, our walks encountered freshly slaughtered impala on several occasions and our small black rhino population was under threat of extinction.

“In the late 1980s there were four resident prides of lion and the park boasted the highest density of sable antelope in Africa. By the mid-1990s the lion had all but gone and the sable had been severely depleted.”

However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Despite all this, Liwonde managed to retain its profile as Malawi’s premier reserve. “There have always been enough elephant to sustain a wonderful viewing experience for nine months of the year,” says Chris, whose company, Central African Wilderness Safaris, now manages Mvuu Lodge and Mvuu Camp in Liwonde.

“The river, with its phenomenal birdlife and profusion of hippos and crocs, has never really diminished as a wildlife spectacle and, of course, we have developed the infrastructure at both the lodge and camp to be on a par with camps elsewhere in the region.”

Additionally, the Badgers are involved with a multitude of conservation projects. Chief among them is assisting with the monitoring and protecting of a small population of black rhino, a crash that started with the original relocation of a pair of rhino from South Africa in 1993.

“I strongly believe that without this intervention this small gene pool – now standing at 12 animals – would have been poached to extinction,” says Chris.

A role model
While there is no doubting the successful impact of safari tourism on conservation and providing alternative income streams for local communities, not just in the camps and lodges but also in supporting industries, the tourism dollar alone cannot solve the adverse effect of human encroachment on the park’s ecosystem.

With the deterioration of the park reaching crisis point, Liwonde’s fortunes took a decidedly upward turn in 2015, when African Parks Network came on board.

“African Parks have very quickly managed to turn around a looming crisis situation,” Chris says. “In little more than a year the park was re-fenced and a professional and extensive anti-poaching programme was set up. Within months the snare and fish poaching diminished from epidemic to negligible. The much-publicised relocation of elephant from Liwonde to Nkhotakota and Nyika is part of a long-term plan to manage Liwonde’s elephants, which, despite the poaching over the years, were in danger of overpopulating. There are also plans afoot to reintroduce lion and leopard and essentially to get the whole ratio of predator to prey back on a sensible footing.”

He adds: “Particularly exciting are ongoing negotiations to bring the Mangochi Forest Reserve under African Parks’ management. This area to the north of Liwonde was traditionally a sort of ‘pressure release valve’ for the park’s elephant to move in to.”

The effects of Liwonde’s turnaround have been felt at a national level as well. “An essential benefit, apart from the sound long-term management of the park, is the publicity this has created for Malawi,” says Chris. “While we have often been viewed as a relative conservation backwater, Malawi can now boast that we are one of the few countries in Africa with a growing and secure elephant population.

“I think the African Parks model points the way forward for conservation in Africa.”

Chris believes that the government’s partnership with an organisation that has the funding and the expertise to manage the country’s parks on its behalf is the most practical long-term solution.

His dreams for the future of Liwonde are already being realised because of it: 100 per cent security for all the game, the return of lion and leopard, the constant upgrading of access and game drive roads and the incorporation of the Mangochi forest.

“These recent developments have put us at the forefront of practical conservation in Africa. The spin off for tourism should be substantial – people now really want to come and see what is happening here.”

Phil Clisby is a seasoned African traveller, and former production manager at Travel Africa magazine.

For more information:
Central African Wilderness: cawsmw.com
Liwonde National Park: http://cawsmw.com/index.php/liwonde-national-park/
Mvuu Camp: http://cawsmw.com/index.php/lodges/mvuu-camp/
Mvuu Lodge: http://cawsmw.com/index.php/lodges/mvuu-lodge/

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