Searching for elephants, hunting for poachers

High up in the Dedza-Salima mountains of Malawi lies Thuma Forest Reserve, 19,700 hectares of stunning miombo woodland, bamboo, rugged terrain and vast views of Malawi and the lake. Home to populations of elephants, buffalo, antelope, monkeys, small carnivores, hyenas and leopards, Thuma is a mountain paradise for wildlife, bird and plant species. However, flora and fauna alike are increasingly feeling the pressures of illegal poaching, deforestation and human encroachment.

Thuma Forest Reserve is managed by Wildlife Action Group Malawi NGO as part of the Thuma Forest Reserve eco-system rehabilitation project, in ongoing efforts to restore the balance of the ecosystem and encourage cooperation and relationships with the surrounding communities. As with many other forests and ecosystems around the world, the increasing population is putting huge pressure on valuable environments and the people protecting them. As my first placement on my conservation trip to Malawi, I knew I was in for a wild ride on the front line of conservation efforts in Africa.

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Two major challenges exist for Thuma Forest and its inhabitants:

Poaching and the human-elephant conflict

Thuma Forest Reserve is thought to be home to one of only three increasing populations of elephant in Malawi (along with Liwonde and Majete). Surrounded by villages, the forest experiences unrelenting pressure from poaching and deforestation due to crop expansion and garden cultivation in the local villages. Due to the poverty and economic climate in Malawi, poachers are using much cruder (and often crueler) methods than just guns and knives… Snares are the cheapest, cruelest and least discriminate tool in a poachers arsenal – a coil of wide hidden in a tree, it only takes the probing trunk of an elephant or delicate hoof of a bushbuck for the snare to constrict around the animal. More often than not, death comes slowly… animals are slowly strangled, starved, or eaten by predators. As I mentioned, they are not selective in the animals that they catch, and a snare set up to catch bush meat may end up catching an elephant instead. The Lilongwe Wildlife Centre Emergency Wildlife Unit recently removed a snare caught on the leg of a baby elephant, and in Liwonde National Park one of the collared research hyenas has a snare caught around her neck. If animals manage to pull the snare free from its anchor, they then carry the coil with them. One hyena was found to have chewed off its own leg in order to escape from a snare, and another elephant had the side of its trunk snapped off, leaving its sensitive (and usually internal) nostrils exposed to the environment…

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Each morning, the scouts of Thuma head out on patrol. Some days it is to fix the fences that have been erected to keep the elephants in the forest (and out of harms way in the villages), other days it is to collect camera trap footage to monitor animal populations and species presence. Most of all, the patrols are searching for elephant groups and hunting for poachers. Scouts are usually men employed from the surrounding villages, and rotate on a 3 week cycle between the various camps. Being local, it greatly assists with any language barriers as well as collecting intelligence about movements of poachers or planned assaults. With the aim of one scout per 15km2 of forest, Thuma boasts one of the most protected areas in the whole of Africa. Poachers most often enter the reserve under the cover of darkness, and when information is received about poaching activities the scouts often stay out all night looking for them. They have the ability to track barefoot poachers through dense forest and untamed terrain, and their persistence and work ethic is admirable. Often, poachers have more high-tech weaponry than the scouts, which poses very real and very dangerous chances of retaliation. Unfortunately, corruption is rife in such a poor country. Often the village chiefs turn a blind eye to poaching activities if there is money in it for them, and may choose to withhold intelligence or play dumb. By incentivising providing information to the scouts and rangers, villagers and their chiefs are rewarded for assisting with the arrest and prosecution of illegal activities.

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Before travelling to Malawi, I saw no way to possibly sympathise with poachers. How could any human being with half a heart find it in themselves to murder such beautiful and endangered animals? But after witnessing the poverty and sickness in the local villages, and seeing the desperation of locals, my opinion started to shift. Imagine that your children are starving, your wife is sick with malaria, and you can’t afford enough food or medicine because your maize crop failed due to the drought. You then see an animal that you know nothing about, you assume it is a common animal all over the world, and one of it’s body parts can be sold for US$50,000. Hell, I don’t blame these people, and even I (arguably one of the biggest animal lovers in the world) struggle to reason against such a case! This is all too common a scenario, particularly in the poorer countries that are blessed with elephants and other precious wildlife.

One other cause of elephant fatalities is the increase in human-animal conflict. As habitat is converted to farmland, migration routes are interrupted by infrastructure, and animals are forced further to find food, the number of interactions between people and animals is growing. Hungry elephants are pushed into villages, and (often accidentally) destroy and damage houses, gardens and unfortunately people. To the average Malawian, a brick and mud house may be the biggest investment of their life, and take months to build, and can be wiped out in a second by a frightened or hungry elephant. People will do whatever it takes to protect their homes and property, and thus arises huge conflict. Thuma Forest Reserve is part way through fencing around the outside of the reserve, not to cage the elephants in but to discourage them from leaving the safety of the forest and enforce the park boundaries to villages wanting to cultivate gardens and clear land. With fences, no one will be able to claim they weren’t aware they were poaching/hunting/gardening in the park! This fencing is hugely expensive, and relies on generous donations and sponsorships from overseas organisations.

Deforestation via gardening and charcoal burning

To many of us, destroying vast areas of stunning forest seems shocking and unjustified, but to many in countries such as Malawi is it a tragic necessity. Collecting firewood and burning charcoal not only provide fuel for families to cook their food on, but also provide income to locals to school their children and buy food and medicine for their families. Charcoal burning is a cheap and hugely profitable industry in Malawi, and unfortunately is legal. The illegal deforestation of bamboo is also increasing, as the plant is used for roofing in villages and is sold easily. Not only do the scouts at Thuma patrol for wildlife poachers, but they look out for signs of illegal activity such as cuttings, charcoal burning, ovens and village gardens impinging on reserve territory.

Deforestation has huge implications for ecosytems. Not only does it destroy habitat and kill animals in the process, but it forces the forest residents out into local villages, contributing to increased human-animal conflict. Classic examples of this are the increasing urban hyena issue in Malawi (more on that in my hyena blog post), gorillas living alongside villages in Uganda, Moose using peoples swimming pools in Canada, and bears eating garbage in America. Ecosystems are finely balanced and sensitive assemblages of many, many species, all filling different niches and replying on each other for various purposes. Remove one component and the rest of the ecosystem is impacted, but remove many components (such as cutting down a bamboo forest or burning large numbers of trees for charcoal) and the ecosystem is sometimes irreversibly damaged.

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“Plant the seed of knowledge and watch a forest grow”

The biggest thing I took away from my experience in Thuma was that with a bit of education, the situation would look very different. If locals understood the importance of the forest to wildlife and to the health of the environment, such as how delicate ecosystems can be and how much animals rely on the forest, they may not destroy it with such ease. Many people also do not understand the emotional capacity of animals such as elephants, nor how rare they are and why they need to be protected. By making the connection between elephants, tourism, jobs and money, much greater value would be placed in protecting these animals and their habitats and locals may begin to change their behaviours.

One of the most memorable and heartbreaking situations I found myself in paints a picture of the attitudes of many local people to the protecting and conservation of elephants and other species. We went to a local school to talk about the forest and about protecting elephants, along with Stand up for Nature, an NGO raising awareness about conservation and wildlife through short videos. In a concrete classroom with no ventilation on a scorching hot day, we crammed in along with 200 schoolchildren to watch footage caught on camera traps of some of Thuma’s elephants. Kit, one of Thuma’s identified elephants, was killed by poachers and camera traps witnessed her family coming to try and rouse her and then mourn her death. In the sauna-like classroom, despite having seen the footage before, I bawled my eyes out at the images of heartbroken elephants touching Kit gently and swaying to and from in distress (I have included the link to the video, and although it is heartbreaking I encourage you to watch it). Once I cleared my eyes of the tears, I looked around to see faces of confusion looking back at me. ‘Crazy mzungu’ they must have been thinking, for these people have no idea of the emotional capacity of elephants and their amazing social groups and human-like tendencies that us in the Western world know of thanks to Sir David Attenborough (aka my hero aka Captain Planet). If people think elephants have as much emotion as a teaspoon, then why would they empathise with them? Why would they see any tragedy in sadness in the murder of family members?

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Of course, big changes need to be made at the government level to provide greater protection for natural areas and more jobs for local people so they can support their families without resorting to illegal activity, but even the small nuggets of education we provided local children and families can make a huge impact on the perception of nature and animals to people, and improve conservation efforts from the bottom up.

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