BBC World Service producer Ben Tavener travelled to Malawi with Africa Exclusive in November 2017. He was bowled over by the amount of wildlife and the important conservation initiatives underway to ensure the long-term survival of the country’s elephant population, and inspired to produce a news report of what he found for the BBC.
Ben’s week-long journey began in the south of Malawi in the Liwonde National Park, which is managed by NGO African Parks. Efforts to protect the elephant here have been hugely successful, and as the elephant are happy and safe, they’ve been breeding rapidly. So much so, in fact, that by early 2016 Liwonde was significantly overpopulated, with an estimated 850 elephant.
When there are too many elephant in an area, there isn’t enough food to go around, and elephant frequently break out of the reserve in search of something to eat, trampling neighbouring farms and villages. Culling elephant is, understandably, very controversial, and castrating them is very difficult, so African Parks conceived the ambitious Elephant 500 programme to move 500 elephant from the Liwonde and Majete National Parks to the Nkhotakhota Widlife Reserve. This also offered an important chance to bolster Nkhotakhota’s own wildlife population, and to restore that fragile ecosystem. In October 2016 Prince Harry spent 3 weeks in Malawi helping with the first phase of project 500, moving 261 elephants to safety.
In Liwonde, Ben stayed with us at the riverside Mvuu Lodge. Mvuu means hippo in Malawi, as there are thought to be 5,000 in the park, but there are plenty of elephant, too! In fact, although 366 of Liwonde’s elephant have now made the move to Nkhotakhota, there are still a huge number to see. Safari guide Angel took Ben out by boat on the Shire River to see elephant families drinking on the river bank, and they saw elephant on game drives as well. One elephant even slept the night at the back of Ben’s tent, as attested to by a great pile of poo!
As you might imagine, elephant translocation is a huge logistical undertaking. African Parks first identified small herds which would be suitable for moving, as keeping family groups together reduces the stress the animals feel when they arrive in their new home. Each elephant was tranquillised with a dart by a vet, lifted by crane onto a truck, then driven north to Nkhotakhota. On arrival, the elephant were released into a fenced sanctuary so they could get used to their new surroundings.
It was important for Ben to see the elephant in their new home. He arrived at the Tongole Wilderness Lodge, and within minutes saw one large bull elephant bathing in the river just metres away from the camp. It had escaped from the sanctuary area, and seemed to be having a ball!
Ben was able to explore Nkhotakhota by kayak, on a walking safari, and also on an evening game drive. Guide Emmanuel took him right into the sanctuary in the late afternoon, where he saw several small family groups of elephant, including elephant calves. Several babies have been born in Nkhotakhota since the elephant arrived, which is a sure sign that the elephant are comfortable and settling in well. The terrain at
Nkhotakhota might be quite different from their original home in Liwonde, but there’s much more space to roam, and plenty of plants to eat.
Sustainable tourism and wildlife conservation go hand in hand: the Elephant 500 wildlife translocation could not have gone ahead if it weren’t for the funding and support African Parks receives from the tourism sector. When you visit Malawi with Africa Exclusive, you can be confident that your stay is supporting vital conservation work. And nothing beats the thrill of seeing elephant in the wild, safe and enjoying their natural habitat.
Ben Tavener’s BBC report about the Elephant 500 translocation in Malawi was broadcast in November 2017. You can watch it online here . If you would like to repeat his journey and see Malawi’s elephant population for yourself, call us now to speak to one of Africa Exclusive’s destination specialists.
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