Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-MALAWI: Elephants Out of Harm’s Way

LILONGWE, Jun 24 2009 (IPS) - A South African capture team has almost completed the translocation of a herd of elephants from the Phirilongwe forest reserve located in a communal management area in southern Malawi.

Adjusting the trunk of an anaesthetised elephant. The tip of the trunk has been amputated, most likely after being caught in a snare. Credit:  IFAW

Adjusting the trunk of an anaesthetised elephant. The tip of the trunk has been amputated, most likely after being caught in a snare. Credit: IFAW

Forty-four elephants have now been removed from an area that has been the scene of a lengthy conflict between elephants and humans since the 1960s.

A total of 60 elephants in Phirilongwe are the remnants of a larger herd that historically roamed a wide area at the southern tip of Lake Malawi, but found their range reduced and divided due to encroachment by a rapidly-expanding human population.

Department of Parks and Wildlife and Wildlife (DNPW) director Leonard Sefu told IPS that human-elephant problem in Mangochi lakeshore district has been a contentious issue for the last three decades.

Sefu confirmed that close to $300,000 had been identified for the translocation exercise as part of the Eco-Tourism Development Project, which seeks to restock and relocate wildlife from communal land to protected areas.

Not enough room for everyone

An ecosystem utilisation study by the wildlife research unit based at the nearby Liwonde National Park on Phirilongwe reveals that there is continued pressure being exerted on the forest resources by human activities these include deforestation for wood energy, encroachment among other.

As is the case elsewhere in Africa, a growing human population has been steadily clearing new land for agriculture in the Phirilongwe forest, shrinking the elephants’ habitat and reducing food and shelter for the animals. The elephants are also being wire-snared and poisoned by poachers, according to DNPW staff.

In their search for food, the elephants have caused extensive damage to crops in the field, and raided granaries for stored maize. Joe Chinguwo, Parks and Wildlife Officer, in charge of Environmental Education at Lake Malawi National Park confirmed in an interview that 16 people have been killed by elephants since 2004.

Population pressure on the reserve seems irresistible. Wildlife researchers warn that the problem will continue as long as Phirilongwe elephants are surrounded by communal management land along the Mangochi-Monkey Bay strip at the southern tip of Lake Malawi.

The translocation exercise began smoothly enough on Jun. 8: “A group of nine elephants, including three young calves, have been successfully darted and tranquilised and are en route from Phirilongwe, just south of Lake Malawi to Majete Wildlife Reserve,” said Jason Bell-Leask, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) director for Southern Africa at the time.

The journey to their new home in the Majete game reserve, in the lower Shire Valley some 200 kilometers south away, took this first group some six hours.

Resistance to translocation

But the operation was then suspended. A group calling itself the Friends of Phirilongwe obtained a High Court injunction restraining IFAW and DNPW from moving the elephants, saying they wanted further study to determine the future of the elephants in the forest reserve.

“We are doing it for transparency reasons. We are demanding an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to determine what will happen to the forest once the elephants have been moved. Our concern is that there is going to be more tree-cutting and environmental degradation in the reserve once the elephants have been moved out. This is because what used to be a threat to people would not be there,” Friends’ member Ismail Khan told IPS.

There had been a long debate over removing the elephants from the region. A 2005 World Wildlife Fund for Nature paper examining options to end human-elephant conflict in Phirilongwe proposed the creation of a park in the area, saying that without the protection from the elephants, the forest will disappear within 20 years.

The WWF study, carried out in response to requests from traditional authorities in the area to find a solution to the human-animal conflict, proposed fencing off the elephants’ core habitat, and the eventual extension of Lake Malawi National Park and re-introduction of other wildlife species to permanently protect habitat while offering the people of the area alternative livelihoods connected to tourism.

The study also conceded that relocation of the elephants was an ecologically-sound option.

Increasing raids by marauding elephants resulted in the formation of a local task force committee in January 2007, comprising chiefs and others from the local community, and the translocation programme was endorsed.

Donors were duly found to pay for the move, and several elephants were collared – for easy detection and monitoring of their movements and distribution in readiness for translocation.

However, as late as March 2008, there were still prominent locals resisting the move and advocating keeping the elephants in the district to enhance tourism, arguing that in the long term this will bring jobs and development to the area.

In April 2008 traditional authorities again launched a complaint – this time directed to the president and cabinet – saying they wanted the elephants relocated. The court application by the Friends of Phirilongwe proved only a temporary setback, and translocation resumed on Jun. 18

Moving 60 elephants

Humphreys Nzima, a renowned Malawian conservationist and coordinator of the Malawi/Zambia Trans frontier Conservation Area, said that although there was potential value in maintaining the elephants in Phirilongwe forest area. The dangers from the elephants in the area were immediate, he says, while reaping benefits from retaining the herd in the area would require long-term development.

A growing population seems certain to continue to put pressure on the Phirilongwe forest reserve. The traditional chief of Namkumba summed up the view of the majority of local residents on the future of the elephants.

“We are surprised that those calling themselves ‘Friends of Phirilongwe’ are arguing over the habitat of the forest. We have lost human lives to elephant stampedes… [We have suffered the] loss of crops and property for quite some time now. The elephants must go to Majete now,” said the traditional chief of Namkumba.

IFAW’s Neil Greenwood reported that twenty-six more elephants were captured and safely moved to Majete once the court ruled translocation could continue.

“On Sunday we loaded a cow elephant of about 50 plus years old into the wake-up crate for her move down to the reserve, her sunken temples telling of a grand old lady who has seen it all. I felt a great sense of satisfaction and achievement in knowing that she will be able to spend her golden years in the safety of a protected area,” he wrote in his blog from the Malawi.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by Inter Press Service (IPS) and the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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