In Malawi, formerly depleted game reserves are getting a new lease on life thanks to the relentless efforts of African Parks, a conservation non-profit with a successful formula of intensive security and community cooperation.
By: Keith Bain
A tiny, slender nation landlocked between gigantic neighbours, Malawi is best known for its famous lake, an expansive inland sea with resorts dotted along its sandy shores and waters brimming with endemic fish, while snorkelling and diving with its colourful cichlids stands out among Africa’s great pastimes.
But there’s more to Malawi than being slung out in a hammock on the beaches of Africa’s third-largest lake. In recent years, the “Warm Heart of Africa” has been working hard to re-establish its safari circuit.
South of Lake Malawi, just 70km from Blantyre, we were at Thawale, a low-key lodge within Majete Wildlife Reserve. It was built by African Parks, a Dutch conservation organisation that has since 2003 managed the reserve as part of a 25-year partnership agreement with Malawi’s government.
Thawale comprises a handful of rock-and-canvas chalets, cottages and tented structures, plus a central dining area, all of which look out across a natural clearing where there’s a waterhole, often bustling with animal activity. Nothing fancy, but it’s very comfortable, with tasty meals, bar service and access to Majete’s knowledgeable guides who connect you with a riveting wilderness.
Magical Majete Wildlife Reserve
At 5am, as dawn light flooded the landscape in diaphanous pastels, we saw baboons foraging, nyala ambling towards the waterhole, warthogs and tiny hoglets trotting into view. We heard gangs of woodpeckers tapping tree trunks, the morning soundtrack an electric symphony of whirring, clicking, buzzing insects, cut through with the chatter and warbling of birds flitting between the trees.
Before the sun bleached out the morning’s vivid ochres, a ranger collected us for a game drive through Majete’s rugged miombo woodland. We passed ancient baobabs and all-white star chestnut trees and paused for elephants crossing the road. We spotted zebras, large eland, tiny suni, sables with their scimitar-like horns, and, from a clearing above the Shire River, we watched hippos wallowing as crocodiles basked on mud embankments.
That there’s so much life here is something of a miracle, albeit one orchestrated by humans. Twenty years ago, Majete had collapsed. With no boundary fences, poaching had decimated most animal life. Lions hadn’t been seen since 1976, leopards not since 1986. Its only large carnivores were spotted hyenas.
That’s when newly-established, donor-funded African Parks stepped in with an eye on transforming it into a viable tourist destination. They erected fences, installed a tenacious security team and introduced some 2 500 animals to establish thriving ecosystems. In 2012, lions were brought in and it became a Big Five destination.
At park headquarters, we met Majete’s manager, John Adendorf, a former SANParks employee who believes African Parks is ahead of the game with respect to antipoaching surveillance. Training for its security team is by special forces out of the USA, and there’s zero tolerance for corruption.
While some subsistence poaching happens, round-the-clock monitoring means they have not lost one rhino, nor any elephants.
Much of that success is down to education programmes and micro-businesses nurtured by African Parks to help ensure that local communities feel invested in Majete’s well-being. A honey project, for example, has boosted income for local people and the plan is to ultimately install 6 000 beehives.
Adendorf explained that most poaching is bush meat for survival. “People around the park are poor and don’t have the luxury of thinking about tomorrow,” he said. “I don’t believe in treating these people like criminals; I’d rather work together with them. That’s African Parks’ approach.”
Still, Adendorf’s team must be vigilant. Among recent innovations at Majete is the introduction in late-2021 of an anti-poaching canine unit. We watched a training session during which Gilly and Milo were given commands by their handlers and rewarded for taking down someone in a padded body suit who pretended to be a poacher. It was quite the scene.
Adendorf said such measures have meant that Majete has become Malawi’s flagship reserve with steadily improving visitor numbers. In 2002, a total of two people visited the park. Today, Majete generates around half a million dollars annually.
Majete’s success has led to African Parks being asked to intervene elsewhere in Malawi, and across the continent, too.
Liwonde National Park
Several hours north of Majete, Liwonde National Park is a fairly small, but abundant reserve, dominated by the presence of a wide, meandering stretch of the Shire River lined by Barossa palms. Since 2015, it’s been managed by African Parks.
At Liwonde’s car park, where we waited for our boat, a sign reads: beware of crocodiles – do not stand near the water at the jetty.
We stood clear and were safely transported across the river to Mvuu, a lodge tucked among the fever trees on the Namagogodo lagoon where it flows into the Shire. Wooden boardwalks lead to the dining deck and a stairway goes up to the lounge overlooking the lagoon’s ceaseless animal activity: hippos cavorted, elephants milled about in the swampy shallows, waterbuck traipsed within metres of a nearby crocodile. Birdlife was raucous.
At dawn, we set off by boat along the silvery-blue river, a snaking mirror lined by primordial beauty. Fish eagles soared, kingfishers darted about, great white egrets sliced through the air and herons skulked in the Natal mahoganies and kunene trees. We navigate around huge pods of hippos and watched elephants crossing the river. It was a primordial waterscape almost shocking in its beauty, impossible to imagine that any kind of threat to the wildlife could exist.
Justin Mwaiwatha, our ranger who has worked at Mvuu for many years, said that when African Parks took over, Liwonde had been in the grip of a poaching crisis. Wire snares – tens of thousands of them – were everywhere. At the same time, elephant numbers had gotten out of control; elephants would cross the river and cause havoc in village fields. People were trampled and elephants killed in reprisal.
Elephants would be found with snares cutting into their tendons, while hyenas that got caught in traps would resort to chewing off their own feet to escape. African Parks paid scouts to remove over 40 000 of the deadly contraptions.
One major project was the translocation of 336 elephants from Liwonde to Nkhotakota, another reserve where poaching had decimated wildlife.
With human-animal conflict radically reduced, long absent species have been reintroduced: cheetah, lions, black rhino and wild dogs have all been brought in.
The park’s range was also expanded by a whopping 60% when adjacent Mangochi Forest Reserve was added to African Parks’ mandate, and the many security initiatives have eliminated elephant and rhino poaching.
Local communities are on board, too. One project sees farmers growing chillies, which has created a natural elephant border because the animals hate chillies. And the farmers have a lucrative crop.
After a full day at Liwonde, I lay in a humongous bed in one of Mvuu’s free-standing suits with its canvas walls and gauze windows. I listened to the scuffle of animals in the surrounding bush. Hippos grunting, elephants scratching against trees, insects buzzing and chirruping, owls hooting, and the unmistakeable roar of lions in the distance.
I fell asleep to this glorious racket and woke to a crisp dawn, the bush orchestra already in full swing. They were happy sounds, triumphant and serene. And an eloquent reminder of what’s possible when there’s commitment, cooperation and dedication to the cause.
Although rentals are expensive and rural roads in disrepair, a decent road network makes self-drive quite possible. Planned itineraries with a tour operator are worth considering for peace of mind. Ultimate Travel has offices in Lilongwe and Blantyre and can arrange transfers or rents car for self-drive trips.
African Parks’ website has information about Majete and Liwonde and other rehabilitated reserves across the continent.
Liwonde’s Mvuu Lodge has eight enormous, very private canvas-and-wood suites, with open-to-the elements bathrooms, outdoor lounging areas and viewing decks above a marshy lagoon. Nearby, family-friendly Mvuu Camp offers access to all the same facilities.
In Majete, Thawale is very down-to-earth and has a variety of accommodations, catered meals, a bar, and a natural swimming pool fenced off, but integrated into the surrounding bush.
Best time to visit
June to September is ideal when it’s dry with warm days and cool nights; June is the coolest month.
Malaria prophylactics and medical insurance covering emergency evacuation are recommended.
Malawian kwacha (1 ZAR = 57 MWK) can be obtained at airports and in cities from ATMs or banks/money changers; credit cards are increasingly accepted, but enquire in advance.
SAA flies to Blantyre and Lilongwe from Johannesburg three times a week.