Reborn to be wild in Majete

This dazzling widlife reserve was once wrecked by poachers. Now it’s back from the brink. By Sue Watt

I wouldn’t usually dip my hand into pungent, fresh dung but, somehow, tracking black rhino made it seem normal. “See, it’s still warm,” Mr Moyo announced. “She probably did this 30 minutes ago.” Mostly grassy with some beetles crawling around, it was actually weirdly exciting – conclusive evidence that the rhino we’d been tracking since 5.30am was closer than ever.

Minutes later, our trackers spotted Shamwari just 20 metres ahead shielding her 18-month-old calf in thicket so dense I couldn’t see her. But I could hear her, particularly when she gave her alarm call, a deep angry snort, warning us to stay away. “Get behind that tree,” Dorian whispered with a palpable sense of urgency, before asking: “How badly did you want a rhino photo?” “Not that badly,” I replied, quickly scanning the tree for footholds to climb in an emergency, apparently the best means of escaping a charging rhino. Another warning from Shamwari convinced us that the photo was unnecessary and we retreated cautiously out of the thicket.

If David Attenborough’s epic new Africa BBC TV series is emblematic of our abiding fascination with the animals of this vast continent, then the conservation story behind the protection of species such as the black rhino deserves equal billing. Without the efforts of wildlife experts and armies of committed rangers and volunteers in reserves, there would be far less for Attenborough to film, and far less for us to admire.

Dorian Tilbury and his team from African Parks, a South African organisation funded by a Dutch conservation foundation, had invited me to see how they monitor and protect rhino in Malawi’s Majete Wildlife Reserve. “We were lucky,” Mr Moyo, our lead tracker, said. “If that had been Kumi, she’d have charged immediately.” Our safe retreat wasn’t down to luck, however; it was down to the trackers’ incredible expertise. They know the reserve’s rhinos by name, by their individual spoor, by distinctive notches in their ears and, thankfully, by their personalities. Following virtually indiscernible footprints in dry riverbeds and along grassy trails, we’d been tracking Shamwari specifically because she is, in rhino terms, a placid character.

Named after the South African reserve where she was born, Shamwari means “friend” in the Shona language. Today, with her horn literally worth more than its weight in gold, she needs friends like African Parks as never before to ensure her species survives. Unprecedented demand for rhino horn from the Middle East and Far East for use in traditional medicine and ornamental dagger handles is luring organised criminal gangs to poach them to the edge of extinction. Now that Majete’s 142km perimeter is completely fenced, it is one of the safest places in Africa for rhino, although rangers remain on high alert with daily patrols. It’s a marked contrast to Majete’s history as a poachers’ paradise that left it virtually devoid of wildlife.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, protecting wildlife was way down Malawi’s list of priorities. Poaching was rife and, by 1992, not a single elephant remained in Majete. Today, it’s home to 260 and wildlife is thriving again thanks to African Parks. This non-profit organisation started managing the reserve in 2003 in a unique collaboration with the government. Dorian explained its ethos: “We aim to take depleted protected areas, rehabilitate them, restock them and get them moving again to make them ecologically, socially and financially sustainable. We get a 25-year tenure and then hand them back to their government and say, ‘There you go, be merry’.”

Majete is well on the way to ecological sustainability. African Parks relocated 2,500 animals to the reserve at a cost of nearly US$3m. Today’s population totals about 5,000. With community involvement crucial to conservation, African Parks employs up to 200 locals and has a social programme of educational, health and income-generating projects that encourages the 19 communities surrounding the reserve (some 130,000 people) to benefit sustainably from wildlife rather than poaching it. With tourism the main revenue source, they’ve added 300km of good dirt roads within the 700sq km reserve to improve accessibility, along with a comfortable lodge called Thawale, a visitor and education centre, and a community-run campsite.

Perhaps the biggest vote of confidence in Majete is the development of a beautiful luxury lodge, Mkulumadzi, which was opened by Robin Pope Safaris in July 2011. On the banks of the Shire River, Mkulumadzi’s eight chalets are bright and contemporary with mesmerising river views regularly featuring elephants, hippos, crocs and monkeys. Indeed, Majete is packed with mesmerising views. My favourite spot for sundowners was the top of a granite mount with 360-degree vistas over undulating hills and riverine landscapes studded with sterculia, known as ghost trees because their smooth white trunks transform them into ghostly figures in fading light.

Walks, boat trips and game drives for viewing Majete’s now varied wildlife are all possible. Just after the rainy season, tall grasses and leafy trees meant spotting animals wasn’t always easy, but those I saw looked gloriously fat and healthy. On a morning drive, I watched male impalas display their strength by butting each other, ready for rutting. Nyala antelopes, with striking devilish-looking faces, trotted behind bushes while elegant eland lay in sandy riverbeds. Smaller wildlife included a group of four Böhm’s bee-eaters and a golden orb spider as big as my hand.

Of the so-called Big Five – elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard and lion – I watched buffaloes wallow in mud and elephants wade in the river. Rhinos, including their calves bred here, remained elusive as did four leopards that were reintroduced last year. Dorian and his team know they’re around, though, monitoring GPS signals from their collars. “A leopard was by your lodge last night,” he said. “And last week, a female and a male were within 300 metres of each other for 48 hours. Their gestation period is about 100 days so we’ll see if there are any youngsters then!”

In August, three lions were relocated from South Africa and have settled in well to their new home, making Majete once again a “Big Five” reserve. Historically, the term referred to the five most dangerous animals to hunt, but today it’s synonymous with the ones that pull in the tourists – and beautiful Majete looks set to attract them big time. With the future looking so bleak elsewhere for animals such as Shamwari and her calf, Majete and African Parks is a ray of hope.

Restocking Africa: Five success stories

South Africa – white rhinos in Phinda Private Game Reserve

Between 70 and 80 per cent of the world’s rhinos live in South Africa, inevitably placing the country at the forefront of rhino poaching. More than 600 were killed for their horns in 2012, exceeding the 450 killed in 2011. Volunteers help to monitor white and black rhino through African Conservation Experience (conservationafrica.net) in one of South Africa’s greatest conservation successes at Phinda Private Game Reserve (phinda.com), KwaZulu-Natal. Its 23,000 hectares were once degraded and depleted of wildlife, but since 1990 more than 1,000 animals have been reintroduced, including white rhinos that now total 100. Phinda is also home to six luxury lodges and masses of wildlife, including more than 400 bird species.

Uganda – Ngamba Island  Chimpanzee Sanctuary

Ngamba (ngambaisland.com), a forested island on Lake Victoria, provides sanctuary to 48 rescued chimpanzees. Africa’s endangered chimps are struggling against loss of forest habitat, the effects of armed conflicts, the bush-meat trade and capture for pets or for circuses. Numbers have diminished from more than one million a century ago to about 150,000 today, with a further decline of 80 per cent expected in 30 to 40 years without intervention. The Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust helps these primates to recover and integrates them into this new community. However, they are unlikely to return to the wild: reintroduction is fraught with danger both from humans and from other chimps. Visitors can care for them, playing and walking with them in the forest.

Namibia – desert elephants in Kunene region

In the 1980s, Namibia’s rare desert elephants were wiped out within their homeland in Kunene by poaching and hunting. Strong rains tempted a small herd to return in 1998 and other herds followed, but by then the local communities were unaccustomed to living with elephants and ensuing conflicts over water sources and crop-raiding threatened the elephants’ survival once more. Today, with the involvement of Elephant Human Relations Aid (EHRA), the elephant population here now exceeds 600. Communities are beginning to see their pachyderm neighbours as an asset in new tourism ventures. EHRA takes volunteers (including families) to assist in building secure water supplies and tracking and monitoring the elephants’ activities in Namibia’s stunning desert landscapes (desertelephant.org).

Zimbabwe – lion conservation at Hwange National Park

It’s unthinkable that you could go on safari and never see a lion, yet their numbers are declining across Africa, from approximately 200,000 in the 1950s to about 25,000 today. The main reasons for this are human-wildlife conflicts and trophy hunting. Unusually, Hwange National Park has had its lion numbers rise after population analysis by the Hwange Lion Research Project, overseen by Oxford University, proved that hunting quotas were unsustainable. Hwange’s latest project explores how communities can co-exist with lions by educating local people as “lion guardians”. Because each lion is identifiable by its whiskers, visitors can help by sharing their head-and-shoulders snaps of the kings of the jungle and location details with guides and researchers to aid their knowledge of behaviour patterns and survival. For more information, see wildcru.org.

Rwanda – mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park

The gradual increase in mountain gorilla populations is one  of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories.  Over the past 10 years, their numbers have increased by an  estimated 12 per cent, with about 800 now living in national parks in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. However, they remain highly vulnerable to threats from human diseases, poaching, deforestation and – especially in DRC – becoming innocent victims of political volatility. Tourism and gorilla conservation are tightly interwoven. Last June, the Rwanda Development Board increased its permit costs by 50 per cent to US$750 (£470). Will our fascination with our closest cousins outweigh this? Rwanda may be testing the market but gorilla conservation could pay the  price. For more information, see rwandatourism.com.

Travel Essentials

Getting There

Sue Watt travelled with Cox & Kings (020‑7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) which arranges private tours to Malawi. Majete National Park combines well with a stay at Robin Pope Safaris’ Pumulani Lodge on the shores of Lake Malawi. A 10-day itinerary including three nights at Mkulumadzi Lodge and four nights at Pumulani Lodge costs from £2,625pp. This includes flights from Heathrow via Nairobi with Kenya Airways, private transfers and full board as well as daily game activities at Mkulumadzi.

More information

malawitourism.com

african-parks.org

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