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Chris Badger. Central African Wilderness Safaris, Malawi.


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Chris Badger

 
Bio: Born in England in 1954. Educated in UK.
 
First job in travel was with Exodus Expeditions in 1979-1981 doing trips and treks in Nepal, India and Pakistan - then moved on to doing trans Africa expeditions from London to Johannesburg.
  • 1981-83 Worked as a ranger at Londolozi.
  • 1983-1986 Worked for Afro Ventures and as a freelance guide in Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.
  • 1986 Joined Okavango Wilderness Safaris as a guide in Botswana.
  • 1987-2014 In Malawi with Wilderness Safaris.
  • 2014 Formed Central African Wilderness Safaris.
Married to Pam. Sons: Wesley and Danny, daughter Emma.
 
In October 2014 Wilderness Safaris sold its stake in Wilderness Safaris Malawi, the new venture being renamed Central African Wilderness Safaris. To read more, click here
 
You can visit Central African Wilderness Safaris at its website here - www.cawsmw.com
 

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Chris, you are considered to be an authority on safari tourism and conservation in Malawi: what is your background in the country and how did you come to be involved in safaris there?
 
I was working as a guide in Botswana for several years in the  1980’s and did some freelance work for Okavango Wilderness Safaris, which became the first company in the Wilderness Safaris Group. I already knew Colin Bell, one of the founders from my time as an overland driver and I joined them full time in 1986. Colin knew Malawi from his student days and was eager  to start something up there - I was keen to move on to new challenges so I did the first recce in March 1987 and then the first safari in October 1987, along with the other founding partner of the Malawi operation, Andy Egginton.
 
What were your initial impressions of Malawi in terms of it being a viable wildlife destination?
 
I was bowled over by the wildlife, despite having had 4 years in Botswana and before that 2 years at Londolozi - it was not so much the numbers but the variety and above all the setting. Liwonde National Park in the south where we now operate Mvuu Camp and Lodge is just spectacularly beautiful with an amazing range of habitats in a very small area - firstly the Shire, one of the great rivers of Africa, supporting huge populations of hippo, crocodile and waterbirds, fever tree thickets, mopane woodland to rival Moremi, miombo clad hills and huge floodplains - it was like the best of the Okavango delta and the Lower Zambezi all rolled into one - add large herds of elephant and sable to the mix and it was and remains comparable to the great wilderness destinations of Africa. The bird count, nearly 400 species, speaks volumes of this incredible diversity.
 
Nyika National Park  is another wild area that defies description - with a height range from 1200 to 2700 metres it has miombo woodland, the huge rolling grasslands of the iconic high Nyika and some of the rarest montane forest patches on the planet where virtually every bird is specific to this micro habitat. While the game numbers do not match other reserves there can be few more inspiring sites than the dry season concentrations of eland, (up to 300). There are also good numbers of roan antelope, Crawshay’s zebra, bushpig, reedbuck and wonderful  leopard viewing. The first leopard I saw up there  was a huge male at a distance and in silhouette and I made the  major blunder of blurting out to my guests that it was a lioness! I quickly corrected myself when I saw the shape and the way it was moving but it was certainly big enough.
 
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Nyika National Park

 
How did you set about realising the country’s safari tourism potential? What other options for tourists were available when you started up Central African Wilderness Safaris?
 
From 1987 to 1993 we did only mobile safaris - usually of around 15 -21 days, covering the country from north to south - not a traditional wildlife safari but one that encompassed walking on Mount Mulanje and Zomba, relaxing on Lake Malawi and visits to Liwonde and Nyika. When we arrived the only substantial international tourism to Malawi were fly in packages from South Africa to the Southern Lakeshore - a sort of cheap alternative to Mauritius - not only did we view the lake as far more than a “beach destination” - it had culture, great diving, watersports and scenery, but we soon realised that we had a mix of destinations and experiences to offer and that the way to market the country was on its variety – I always thought it was a pity that South Africa coined the phrase, “a world in one country”,  before we did because it is equally applicable to Malawi. The really exciting areas - Mulanje, Liwonde, Nyika, the Northern Lakeshore were only visited by more intrepid self drivers and overlanders - I hope what we managed to achieve was to make these wonderful areas accessible to more people. 
 
What were the early days like for you in Malawi, both personally and professionally? How difficult was it to set up a new life there and encourage business?
 
Well personally they were a lot of fun! I loved doing safaris, the Wilderness office were superb in finding a regular flow of guests to come to Malawi  so we kept busy and we lived in a magnificent, (but cheap - we had no money!!!), house on the lake near Monkey Bay and beer was half the price of anywhere else I had ever travelled. For the first few years expanding the market beyond South Africa was a challenge  but we slowly managed to learn more, diversify into special interest trips such as hiking and birding, so although we grew very slowly - from 1987 to 1992, we only expanded from 6 employees with 2 vehicle to 8 with 3 vehicles, we were well placed when the government took steps to privatise the management of the tourist lodges within the parks in 1994.   
 
How was the tourism infrastructure when you started out compared to what it is now? How have you been able to grow CAWS in terms of securing concession areas, building camps and lodges etc?
 
The infrastructure was actually not too bad - there was just not much of it! There were a few reasonable resort style hotels on the southern lakeshore but it was very simple in the National Parks with facilities built for self catering in the 1960’s but we always believed that with good guiding, food and activities we could deal with this. However the market in the early 1990s changed radically - when I left Botswana some of the smartest lodges such as Xaro and Xugana were not even en suite and had hospital type beds which we thought were brilliant!! What was deemed “posh" was not nearly as smart as a standard camping safari is nowadays!! So suddenly with the rapid improvement of facilities in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, Malawi began to look pretty basic, and without ever losing sight of the fact that the experience of a safari is far more than just the quality of the accommodation, we did need to improve infrastructure. In 1993 the government of Malawi put out the first ever private sector tender for running facilities in a national park. This was in Liwonde where the existing Mvuu Camp was a collection of mud built rondavels. We managed to win this tender. Interestingly we were at the time competing with some much larger and more financially robust companies and we believe we owe our success here to the fact that the Department of National Parks recognised our passion for conservation and had seen how we were steadily and successfully growing our Botswana business. In 1997 we were awarded the tender to run another ex government establishment - a small hotel on the northern Lakeshore-Chintheche Inn and then in 2009 Chelinda Lodge and Camp on the Nyika.   
 
Back then how did local people regard Safari tourism and how has their opinion changed during the intervening years?
 
Safari tourism was so small in the late 1980’s that virtually everyone working in this field was a government employee - the department of National Parks ran the camps as well as managed the parks which, with the exception of Kasungu only offered self catering so there were simply very few employment opportunities and there were no careers to be had. Our model depends on great service, and consequently a high ratio of staff to guest so the first effect was more employment - Mvuu for example employs 110 people to service 50 beds – almost all our staff are not just from within Malawi but are from within the local area from poor rural communities where a little money goes a long way - as we grew we noticed that employees were opening shops, buying plots of land, starting farms, buying bicycles and running bicycle taxi businesses - so the simple power of a wage in rural Malawi is exponential - not only does it go further but our research has shown that the extended family is supported to the tune of an average of 8 - 10 per employee. Training and structured pay scales mean that staff have something to aspire to and the link between great service and personal welfare becomes apparent.
 
So, in a nutshell, safari tourism is now seen as a genuine career path and provides employment in areas where previously no opportunities existed. However we must be honest in not overestimating its capacity to empower owing to the large population and comparatively few lodges in protected areas...
 
For those who don’t know Malawi, what are its national parks and wildlife reserves and what does each offer the visitor in terms of possible wildlife sightings?
 
National parks, game reserves and forest reserves make up 17% of the country – remarkable considering how small and heavily populated the country is and that the lake alone takes up 30%. I’ve already mentioned Nyika and Liwonde but there are more - Lengwe National Park in the lower Shire has the most northern population of nyala in Africa as well as our smallest antelope - the Livingstone’s suni. Majete next door is a recent conservation success story - poached out in the 80’s it was recently taken over by African Parks and completely restocked with elephant, waterbuck, impala, lion, leopard, buffalo and black rhino. Nkotakhota Game reserve in the centre of the country is a largely forested area with the wonderful Bua River flowing through it - another area that has been badly poached there are plans afoot to reintroduce more elephant as well as several antelope species and predators. Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve to the south west of Nyika is a low lying reserve with lots of water and  good numbers of elephant and general game but again, is under huge pressure.
 
What of birding? I’ve read that the white winged apalis is considered endemic to Malawi along with several other subspecies – how rewarding is a birding safari and how good are the birding guides? If this is high on one’s list of priorities, what should a specific birding itinerary consist of and why?
 
The species list for Malawi is over 600 - this is remarkable for such a small country without a coastline. Of these there are over 70 species that will not be seen South of the Zambezi, (i.e., “Southern Africa”). A safari we did way back in 1987 with Ian Davidson and Peter Steyn as guides still holds the species count record for a trip here - 425 - but we have pushed close to this on several trips over the years - the main birding areas would be the southern forests around Blantyre, Thyolo , Zomba and Mulanje for white winged apalis, (probably easiest to find in Zomba), Thyolo alethe and green headed oriole - this list is by no means exhaustive - I just mention a few specials. Liwonde National Park and the Shire River would be a highlight - not just for the number of birds but for the profusion of rare birds which are both spectacular and easy to find here - white backed night heron, Pel’s fishing owl, osprey, bat hawk, brown breasted barbet, Bohms bee eater to name just a few. The extensive miombo woodland around Dzalanyama and the lower slopes of the Nyika might yield Stierling’s woodpecker, boulder chat, miombo rock thrush, miombo double collared sunbird and the Nyika National Park with its very specific montane habitats - both grassland and forest has a number of  habitat specific species such as Fulleborn’s boubou, Sharpes akalat, bar tailed trogon and no less than 3 different types of redwinged starling. However, some of our best birding areas are under threat - many of the miombo woods and southern forests around Mulanje, Thyolo and Blantyre are being  cut down for charcoal and the protected areas are under huge pressure with an ever increasing rural population. Tourism can play its part in the preservation of these threatened areas. We have some great birding guides, all of them trained by ourselves. 
 
What type of safari goer does Malawi appeal to?
 
Malawi is not a traditional safari destination with the main focus on wildlife so we do not try to compete with places such as Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania where you can put together a trip based purely on game viewing. In Malawi it is variety that is the key - great wildlife experiences in a few select areas will be part of a larger whole which might  also incorporate the lake for relaxation, culture and activities and perhaps walking and scenery on Mulanje and Thyolo. While it can be a great destination for the first timer to Africa, it particularly appeals to second or third time visitors who have got the safari out of their system and want to move on to a more holistic trip where all of the above are incorporated.
 

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Snorkelling in Lake Malawi, Mumbo Island Camp.

 
What itinerary would you recommend which offers the first time visitor a good insight into what the country has to offer? Why? And when is the best time to visit?
 
Well, obviously time and budget can be constraints but a really comprehensive trip would be a combination of flying to the more remote areas such as Chelinda Lodge and Kaya Mawa on Likoma Island with a road safari trip in the south of the country - something like 3 nights at Mvuu, on to the Thyolo Tea Fields for a couple of days at Huntingdon House, using this as a base to visit Mount Mulanje and then up to Mumbo Island  on Lake Malawi  followed by a flight to Chelinda Lodge in Nyika National Park and ending with 3 nights of luxury at Kaya Mawa. Such an itinerary incorporates wonderful game viewing, superb scenery, history, culture and "meet the people” opportunities. It is important to stress how fulfilling road transfers are in Malawi - often the high point of a trip will be the journey between various points of interest allowing the opportunity to stop in villages to meet local farmers and merchants, photo ops etc.
 
Best time to visit - anytime between April and November - April and May are just after the rains - cool with glorious views everywhere, June and July are our winter - getting drier and cooler in the evenings with game viewing becoming better as the land dries and from August to November it becomes steadily hotter and drier. The rains between November and April should not be ignored either - there is a certain magic to travelling in the rains and it is a wonderful time for birding but you do need to be prepared to get wet!!
 
What are the logistics of a safari in Malawi? How well is the country served by international travel connections and likewise, how easy is travel within the country?
 
International connections have increased considerably recently with the  3 main  international carriers being Kenya Airways, Ethiopian and South African. There are over 20 flights weekly to Lilongwe  and around 15 to Blantyre in the south, providing easy connections via South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia to Europe and the rest of the world. Within Malawi the roads are generally in good order - in 1987 our standard 15 day trip was around 1800 kms and 800 kms of this was on challenging dirt roads. This same itinerary today has only 200 kms of dirt. While personally I rather miss the bad old roads I do also remember spending almost as much time underneath the vehicle as driving it so I suppose this is progress!! There is also now reliable air charter serving the main tourist areas at Chelinda, Likoma and the Southern Lakeshore through Ulendo Airlink so the logistics of getting around are no longer a challenge.
 
What wildlife conservation issues have affected the country during the last 25 years and how important is tourism now in helping to protect the country’s wildlife?
 
Our main issue is a very common one that affects much of our continent to varying degrees. We have relatively small protected areas and a high population - upward of 16 million people and steadily increasing. Being largely rural, the population is dependent on the same resources of wood and water that the game parks rely on for their survival. Present day poachers are occasionally hardened criminals running bushmeat syndicates but they might also be the sons of hunters who saw the hunting and eating of game as a birthright and a necessity for survival. Charcoal production is illegal in Malawi but the  charcoal seller is  merely someone trying to scratch a living. The only possible way to alleviate this pressure is in alternative income generation. We have to be realistic and we must have vigorous and unrelenting security as well but if we try to look at the long term picture then we must realise that a protected area in Malawi is simply competing with other forms of land use - it has to show itself to be the best form of land use to survive and this is where income generation, and employment from tourism comes in - we also need to emphasise what is possibly conservation’s strongest argument in a country where there is such competition for scant natural resources - that well managed protected areas can exist in perpetuity - this is not a “quick fix”. However it is not always easy to get this long term message across. A poor rural community can seldom afford the luxury of looking at either the bigger picture or the long term message when short term survival is their main concern and the politicians and decision makers seldom have the will to look at long term policies that risk short term opposition...
 
If we are brutally honest then while we believe that we have made some sort of difference, particularly with our Mvuu model, it would be unrealistic  to see safari tourism as a solution in its own right - if this were Namibia or Botswana it could be - the ratio of resource to people is so favourable there that you can realistically empower a much larger % of rural communities through safari tourism than Malawi ever could. In our many meetings with government we try to stress the holistic necessity of sound environmental management - the tree that is cut down for charcoal makes the country less scenic for tourists, threatens species diversity and particularly certain birds but it also washes  away the farmers field and causes flooding where there would be none and denudes the area of fuelwood - the potholed road that I want fixed to deliver my tourists also delivers the crop to the market and the books to the school etc, etc.  
 

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Wildlife viewing at Mvuu Camp, Liwonde National Park.

 

What is the state of wildlife populations outside of protected areas in Malawi and is there any land area which could be transformed into wildlife areas/added to the current protected areas?
 
There is very little game left outside protected areas - we simply don’t have the space - the ‘buffer zone” in Malawi seldom exists - there is no slow transition from village to park - it tends to be a fence with people one side and game on the other. There are still a couple of places left where unprotected areas link reserves - there is an area north of Liwonde between the park and Mangochi Forest Reserve that we call the “elephant corridor” as it acts as a pressure release valve for elephant moving out of the park to the forest in the dry season - there are plans afoot to incorporate the corridor and the forest reserve into a single protected area with Liwonde. In the north there is a wilderness area between Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve and Nyika National Park that has the same function for game movement that is being linked into a greater whole. Apart from these there is very little game left outside of the parks.  
 
Malawi is a country with a high median human density: how bad is the human pressure and encroachment upon protected areas and what can be done to lesson the affects?
 
I have mentioned this above. In general the pressures are huge - greater in the south than the north but nevertheless they are a real challenge throughout Malawi. Encroachment has been limited to a few key areas such as Vwaza Marsh, Kasungu and the elephant  corridor north of Liwonde but it is likely to increase without urgent action. Immediate and consistent security is needed, but clearly the long term solution has to be to better the livelihoods and quality of life of the communities around the parks. I do not believe that traditional solutions of resource sharing which might work well elsewhere, (where the protected area is huge and the community is small in number - I always quote Namibia as the most obvious example - see above), can work in Malawi. Generally  the protected areas are too small and the communities surrounding too numerous for resource sharing to be possible - the needs of the community would outstrip the resources of the area to sustain them meaningfully and the end result could be disastrous - so I believe that the solution has to be to work to better livelihoods outside the protected areas to decrease the pressure on the parks. A farmer whose maize crop has failed often becomes a poacher - the best chance to stop the poaching is to ensure that the  crop does not fail. Ultimately I believe that the only solution to our long term environmental challenges is a relative degree of prosperity - the population needs to stop increasing but preaching and child spacing programmes will not be effective when communities see children as wealth and an insurance against old age and cannot see a light on the horizon to end their grinding poverty. Amongst our staff we find some interesting case studies - a safari guide from a village with an average of perhaps 6-8 children per household will start to budget, realise that his wage can allow him to send his children to a decent private primary school, if he has perhaps 2 or 3 children so will plan accordingly. This will not be a doctrine we have preached from on high-it will simply be a decent living wage allowing him the luxury to think and to plan this way. I am not for a minute trying to claim any credit for this - all we try to do is to run our business - this is just a happy trickle down effect of the power of a wage in rural Malawi .  
 
What instances of human vs wildlife conflict occur in Malawi and what is being done to negate it?
 
We have the traditional one, particularly around Liwonde, of elephant destroying crops and occasionally damaging villages - this is not because there are too many elephant - it is simply that as is their nature, elephant are attracted to certain foods growing outside of the park, particularly mangoes - in season from October to January - and the fences around the parks are seldom intact, often because poachers have stolen the wire for snares but more often because of neglect and lack of funding. We have worked closely with National Parks over the years, through our community outreach programmes, (see www.helpchildren.org  and Children in the Wilderness - www.childreninthewilderness.com), to try to get communities to confront the poachers in their midst who are making this problem worse. At the same time we cannot be starry eyed about these problems and think that education and bettering of livelihoods alone will solve the problem. It can take years to create both awareness and income generation in the areas surrounding the parks and if the law is not upheld in the meantime we will end up with nothing left to protect so anti-poaching and firm action to stop and reverse this encroachment will always be a critical element of  this equation.  
 
Which conservation organisations are active in Malawi and what projects are they undertaking?
 
There are a number and I am happy to say that gradually these organisations are collaborating better so that the challenges are  identified and met more effectively. African Parks www.africanparks.org manage Majete Game Reserve in the Lower Shire - this is a ground breaking initiative for Malawi in that they have taken over an area that had been completely poached out and have rehabilitated it and relocated large numbers of game - elephant, lion, leopard, black rhino, waterbuck, buffalo, impala and zebra to name a few. The government of Malawi as with so many countries in Africa is always underfunded and this operation could only have been managed by an organisation such as African Parks with the expertise and the funding to make this happen. It has been far sighted of government to realistically acknowledge this fact by partnering with African Parks. Our own efforts have been assisted greatly by the Wilderness Trust- www.wildernesstrust.com who have funded aerial surveys of Liwonde and consistently supported our efforts to protect and monitor the small black rhino population in Liwonde. 
 
The Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, www.lilongwewildlife.org do great work in a number of fields such as building capacity through training and mounting a vigorous awareness campaign in Malawi about the llegal wildlife trade. They also work very closely with local schools and with Children in the Wilderness to build conservation awareness.
 
I should apologise in advance here to some organisations I might have failed to mention.
 
How does Central African Wilderness Safaris interact with government authorities, other tourism stakeholders and NGOs in assisting conservation efforts?
 
Since 1987 we have played an increasingly active role in this field. While we cannot argue that we have always had a 100% success rate we view one of our essential roles as a “catalyst for action”. Working in the protected areas of Malawi we are able to see the challenges on the ground. Doing mobile safaris around Malawi we are able to see the rates of environmental degradation so we are in a good position to gauge the challenges and this is the starting point for action. Our main partnership with government is with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife - we pay concession fees to them for our properties in Liwonde, Nyika and Chintheche and liase regularly on the problems faced - inevitably this department is underfunded so we have regular meetings to discuss what challenges are faced, what resources the department can utilise and if there is a gap in funds and resources needed, then we look at how we can help - some smaller issues such as maintenance of local roads, information given to parks on poaching etc., we handle ourselves and for more complex or expensive projects we seek outside assistance - the most obvious example of this would be the black rhino project in Liwonde where National Parks have provided extra scouts to assist with security patrols, we have covered costs for a rhino research ecologist and all the attendant costs on logistics etc and the Wilderness Trust have supplied a vehicle and financial assistance with veterinary bills etc. There are a number of unsung heroes who have assisted us too and if I have left some out I can only apologise as there have been so many but perhaps I can use this forum to give a brief mention to Dr Pete Morkel, perhaps Africa’s premier wildlife vet who has made a titanic contribution to the rhino project. Over the past 3 years we have managed to dart and medicate several snared rhino and also with Pete’s assistance inserted horn transmitters into all the rhino in Liwonde. Pete has not only paid several visits to Liwonde to assist with this - he has often dropped what he has been doing elsewhere and climbed on the next plane to Malawi  at his own expense. He has also trained up local vets and  helped us to build capacity to handle emergency situations. 
 
Our main effort though is in constantly trying to get the government to put conservation in its broadest sense at the very top of its development agenda. Our argument is a very simple one - without environmental conservation in all its forms - for farmland as much as  for national parks, for water resources as much as for forests etc., then no other development agenda has any long term future. Conservation must be a priority, not an afterthought.   
 
One reads reports of the serious deforestation taking place in Malawi. What are your own observations on the state of the country’s forests and in your opinion, what are the causes driving it? What steps are being taken by authorities to slow down the rate and introduce more sustainable forestry management – how are they interacting with NGOs to tackle this issue?
 
Some of  the comments below are a repeat of earlier ones. It is a huge problem and the statistics are frightening. The causes are quite simple - an ever increasing population is dependent on wood as its main source of warmth and cooking - charcoal production is out of control and is not policed or regulated at all. The challenges are really the same as for poaching - the charcoal seller is not a “Mr Big” knowingly denuding an area of its tree cover - he is a poor man trying to scratch a living and I think this is one of the key problems we face in Malawi and in many other poor countries with limited economic opportunities and a fast increasing population - looking into and planning for the future is a luxury only really accessible to those with a relative degree of wealth - if you are not sure if you are going to have food on the table next Tuesday then inevitably you are going to live from day to day and not look at the long term consequences of cutting a tree down. Government and private sector together need to take the lead here. My frustration is that government often fails to give direction - there are several local NGOs involved in the  planting of trees, including our own operation, www.roottofruit.net but it would be more effective if we had a clear nationwide plan to buy into where we could tailor our efforts towards  assisting the government in implementing a clear and well planned strategy in our particular area of operation. So my answer to your question is that in the absence of a clear government strategy there are a number of NGOs simply doing their own thing. Ours has planted 100,000 trees in a year and is now involved in the much more challenging  task of trying to ensure a 70% or better survival rate. I believe this is one of our most crucial challenges and radical solutions are needed - no amount of tree planting schemes can keep up. The tourist  dollar helps but the only solution is somehow to make that tree worth more standing than fallen.
 
How important has it been to engage local communities and have their support? How have they become involved in the company’s activities for instance, what percentage of your employees are from local communities? What roles do they have, what training and opportunities for advancement do you offer? Other than employment, how do you support local communities where you operate? And just how receptive are rural/agricultural communities to wildlife conservation efforts in their areas?
 
Of 200 employees, 193 are citizens of Malawi and of these 191 are from the local areas around our lodges. While I could claim that this was a commitment to employing locally it was not - it has simply proved to be the most practical and cost effective way of running our business. Staff living locally have their families nearby and many have their own working plots of land so in general staff are much happier if employed locally. It has taken a good deal of training to reach this stage - when we first came to Malawi there were simply no trained local  staff so this ratio has become more and more local over the years. We have an in house training programme for all levels of staff with many opportunities for advancement. All our safari guides are locally trained and had no experience when they joined us. Our manager and assistant manager at Mvuu started as a waiter and a housekeeper.
 
One of the most valuable aspects of employing locally is that we slowly get to understand what might or might not work with conservation projects  in our areas of operation - it has given us an insight into the challenges that face rural communities in Malawi and what the conservation priorities are. Passion may be our starting point but without local knowledge it is often doomed to failure. Here is a story that points out the value of local knowledge - the Shire River has a problem with water hyacinth - an invasive weed. I researched this a few years ago and found out that with a simple locally made press using wood, one bolt and a plastic plumbing pipe you could make brickettes of the water hyacinth that when dry would burn quite well. This would tick 2 boxes - it would slowly rid the Shire of an invasive weed and it would lessen the pressure on the park for firewood and for charcoal. So without consulting staff or local community I forged ahead in my garden in Lilongwe.The first brickettes worked well - they cooked a little slowly and with a very gentle glow but they did the job. The next step was simply to hand the project over - “Here you are - no more problems with firewood - a simple press at virtually no cost and a self renewing supply of hyacinth”. There was absolutely no enthusiasm from the community and I when I explained this to our manager at Mvuu, he asked: “Do you know the function of a fire in a village?”, ‘Yes,” I replied, "it is to cook the maize.”, “Not only.” he replied. "It is also to provide light and in the winter, warmth. A dull glowing brickette doesn’t do that. If you‘d talked to me first I could have saved you the trouble...”
  
Support to local communities are mentioned above - the main ones being the school at Nanthomba, the Children in the Wilderness Programme and the Root to Fruit Tree Planting project. (See my answers to 15,16.18).
 
Your last question is an important one. How receptive are communities to wildlife conservation? In my experience it has to be directly relevant to that community in some way: does it benefit the community? Can it provide a wage, build a school, buy your produce, train your children and give them a career? If it can then the community will get on board. Rural communities do not have the luxury of enjoying the majesty of a herd of elephant crossing the river.
 
With recent and ongoing investment in Malawi, (infrastructure, new properties, wildlife translocations etc), how do you see the future of safari tourism in the country? What needs to be done in order to bring Malawi to a greater audience and encourage more safari goers to visit?
 
I’m cautiously optimistic despite the challenges. The world is slowly sitting up and noticing Malawi. Last  year, “Lonely Planet” named us  amongst their Top 5 places to see.  The  dedicated safari goer who regularly travels to Africa is  a natural growth market for us and the fact that there are new developments and conservation initiatives allied to a greater variety of sensibly priced long haul flights makes us increasingly attractive and it is becoming much easier for potential guests and trade partners to find their way to us for their ‘annual dose of Africa.' Another selling point which I believe we need to shout from the rooftops is that the ‘trickle down’ effects of the tourist dollar are so easily seen and so hugely beneficial here. Our  guests are responsible people - they are keen to have a wonderful safari but naturally want to rationalise the paradox of the expensive safari tent with the poor rural village they have driven through to get there. Do we exist in glorious isolation? Do we make any difference beyond paying a few wages? We expect to be asked if we really do “walk the walk”. My answer is always, “Come to Malawi and we’ll prove it to you!!”
 
 

The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.


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