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One Morning in the Mara
Sverker - Jun 27 2012 09:08 AM
Michael Eustace, African Parks.
Michael Eustace was Senior General Manager of Nedcor Investment Bank in South Africa. He was born in Kenya and brought up in Rhodesia and studied Economics at the University of Cape Town. He is now retired and lives in Johannesburg. Michael was one of the founders of African Parks and is now the board chairman of Banweulu Wetlands Management, Zambia and serves on the board of Majete Wildlife Reserve, Malawi.
To discover more about African Parks and their work, visit the website at - www.african-parks.org.
Coming from an economics background, how and when did your interest in wildlife conservation develop?
I was brought up in Rhodesia and as a boy and young man I spent a lot of time in the bush. The Zambezi Valley was just wonderful and more than enough to encourage me and many others into a life-long love of wilderness.
What led up to the founding of African Parks and how did you become part of its board?
The decline in many of Africa’s parks was alarming and the 4 founders felt that some money and management skills could turn parks around. If you can control poaching, and only that, most parks thrive. I was only involved as a main board member in the initial years.
What were the project’s initial ambitions and how were they decided upon? How have those ambitions been realized?
We had fairly modest ambitions thinking that money was going to be a constraint but the major constraint turned out to be a reluctance on the part of governments to outsource the management and financing of their parks. AP are now part of the management of 8 parks in 7 countries. The parks add up to about 6 million hectares. AP has been much more successful than I ever expected. I was not involved for most of the time so can’t claim much of the glory.
Of all the places African Parks operates, (full list at www.african-parks.org/Our+Parks.html), why did you personally become directly involved in Majete Wildlife Reserve, Malawi and the Bangweulu Wetlands in Zambia?
Some years back AP asked me to join the Majete and Bangweulu boards. I come from an investment background and investment analysts spend their time watching what works in business and what does not and how important it is, for example, to spend wisely, to be disciplined, to think and consult, to pay attention to detail and demand high standards. These are principles that apply to most enterprises, including parks.
Why was Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi, (www.african-parks.org/Park_1_13_About+the+Park.html), chosen as the first conservation partnership African Parks entered into?
Anthony Hall-Martin was one of the founders and he had had a close relationship with Malawi as Conservation Director of SANParks. The Malawi parks people thought highly of him and it was largely as a result of Anthony that we became involved in Majete.
The Shire River.
In 2003, what state was the reserve in, both in terms of its environment and wildlife numbers? How did you identify what needed to be done in order to begin its restoration?
Majete was a pristine piece of Africa with the Shire river running through it and lots of smaller rivers running into the Shire. It is hilly country with magnificent trees. There were very few animals and birds. It had been poached out. Initially we fenced off 10,000 hectares as a sanctuary and moved 2,500 animals in there. Over time, we introduced 200 elephant. It was a major exercise. The sanctuary made the control of poaching easier and we had a tourist product quicker. Once we had the whole reserve of 70,000 hectares fenced, we pulled down the sanctuary fence and the animals were able to move outside the sanctuary although many chose to stay.
How has the reserve recovered since 2003? What remains to be done?
We now have 7,000 animals including the Big 5. The birdlife has recovered amazingly with lots of birds having moved in, perhaps up the Shire from the Zambezi and Mozambique. We now need to find ways of making it profitable and an example to other parks in Africa.
When the restoration project began, how were your activities viewed by local communities surrounding the reserve and what was done to cement relationships in which trust was established on both sides?
We stopped the poaching but the locals understood that poaching was against the law and they accepted that. We have gone to great lengths to tell and show the locals what we are doing and why. We have a dedicated team to do that.
Just how important have they been in achieving the objectives for Majete and what benefits are they seeing in return?
The people have been supportive. We help them with education, (80 bursaries), and health and small businesses and employ over 100 people, most of whom come from the surrounding communities. We only have one foreigner, our Field Operations Manager. We pay and support the Department of National Parks and Wildlife officers who work on the reserve.
Trees in Majete.
How have you seen safari tourism to Majete, (and Malawi in general), develop since 2003 and what more needs to be done to ensure it becomes a sustainable revenue source funding conservation objectives and bringing tangible benefits to local communities surrounding wildlife areas?
Tourism at Majete is growing strongly but it is small. We have about 7,000 tourists p.a. It is expensive to get to Malawi. The country needs to encourage a low cost airline to service Malawi. It is a 2 hour flight from Johannesburg to Blantyre but it costs twice as much as a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, which is also 2 hours. There is lots of competition on the Cape Town route. We have a 5 Star lodge run by Robin Pope and we run a 3 Star tented camp as well as a campsite. People think that lodges are easy ways to make money but it is actually a very difficult business to make profitable. The infrastructure is expensive as is the up-keep and the running costs and the marketing costs are high. There are not a lot of people in Malawi who can afford to stay in a lodge so foreign visitors are important.
We have the opportunity to offer some of the best wilderness walks in Africa. Walking is by far the best way to enjoy the smells and sounds and excitement and peace of the bush. If we offer superb walks we may be able to get visitors to stay for a week rather than a couple of nights. I think walking is a very undersold activity in Africa. There is also the potential to construct wonderful photographic hides at pumped waterholes in dry areas which will attract lots of game and birds. A really good hide is fascinating and visitors will spend all day there, in peace, rather than driving around. We can also offer leases to investors who would like a private, non-commercial lodge in Big 5 Africa, with traversing rights over 70,000 hectares. That probably has the best potential.
Why fence the park? What have been both the positive and negative results of this action? When will it reach the point where wildlife management decisions will have to be taken in order to balance population numbers?
There are large numbers of people living along the borders of the park. We needed to protect them and their crops from animals so a fence was essential. We are years away from having to manage the numbers but when that time comes we hope to move animals from Majete into other parks, but those parks need to be protected from poaching. AP is currently negotiating to manage and finance other parks in Malawi.
In Malawi in general, what space exists outside of parks and reserves for wildlife dispersal areas and migration corridors? How close to protected areas does human encroachment reach? And what of Majete? What do the community areas outside of the fence comprise of and what hope is there for future wildlife dispersal areas etc. on this land?
Malawi is very heavily populated with little space outside parks for wildlife. The priority is to control the poaching in existing parks and see that existing parks thrive without being distracted by new areas where there is little potential.
What is the ten year management plan for Bangweulu Wetlands and how does African Parks intend to meet its objectives?
Bangweulu needs annual funding of about $1 million. The main generator of income is likely to be from hunting.
What tourism infrastructure exists in the Bangweulu Wetlands and what are the logistics of getting there? What have annual visitor numbers been since African Parks took over management and realistically is safari tourism a viable sustainable income source to fund the area’s conservation?
There are 3 tourist camps but it is 8 hours drive north of Lusaka. There are very few tourists. People that visit go to see the large herds of Black Lechwe, which only occur at Bangweulu and also the Shoebills. There is some good birding at certain times. We should be able to attract more travelers going up the Great North Road to Tanzania but given that tourist lodges are only marginally profitable, I don’t see tourism being a major contributor.
How can you hope to encourage more tourism to Bangweulu?
It is going to be difficult. We will introduce more animals and a larger variety and increase the Shoebill population by protecting them.
How different is the management of an ungazzetted wildlife area with a high incidence of human habitation compared to a gazetted reserved or park? What particular challenges does the Bangweulu Wetlands face and what has been done since African Parks took over management to alleviate said problems?
This is a park that hopes to reconcile the protection of the habitat with the people who are living there. AP has controlled the poaching and improved the infrastructure in terms of staff housing, roads and bridges, airfields and communications. They have also employed a fisheries officer so as to understand the fish populations and the huge volume of fishing. AP also employed a skilled researcher so as to understand the Shoebill population and how best to look after them.
Fishing is a major food source.
Approximately how many people live in Bangweulu wetlands and what is their primary food source? What efforts have been/are being made to introduce sustainable farming practices which lesson the human impact on the environment and wildlife?
There are about 50,000 people living at Bangweulu. Fishing is a major food source but cassava and maize is grown in the drier areas and bartered for fish. The fisheries officer understands the system and has persuaded the fisherman not to fish from December to February and that has improved the catch. The Park Manager has found a type of millet that will yield the same crop without having to cut down trees for fertilizer.
How do conservation aims conflict with the needs of communities living in Bangweulu? How are the local communities involved in the conservation decision making process?
Our conservation aims are to protect the needs of the communities in the long term. There may be minor short-term sacrifices but the communities understand the need to conserve for the long term. The communities are closely involved in all the decisions that are made. It is probably the most valuable Community Based Natural Resource Management area in Africa.
Why have predator populations been eliminated from the wetlands and without lion, cheetah, wild dog etc, how are the numbers of traditional prey species controlled? Is it a fair observation that species that have been seen as problematical to communities have been wiped out, therefore those species that remain are those which cause less hardship for the people living there?
Predators do visit from time to time but they are a danger to the locals. The area is vast… 600,000 hectares… so there is no need to control prey species as yet. There are more than 35,000 Black Lechwe but there have been double that number in the past. Lechwe are a potential food source for the people rather than predators.
Tell us about the Shoebill population - what is the estimate of numbers in the wetlands area and what threats does the population face?
When I first went there I was alarmed at the amount of fishing going on and felt the Shoebills must be under threat because they live on fish. We thought there were only 27 but the researcher now feels there could be as many as 200. We have put guards on some of the nests to protect them from people and from fires and that has been a success. They typically lay 2 eggs but only one chick survives so there is some scope for taking one chick from the nest and raising it separately. We have raised 2 chicks and they have learned to fish and returned of their own accord to the wild so there is optimism around increasing the population. People were taking the eggs and chicks to sell to the international market for wild birds but we have put a stop to that.
How much of an impact did the loss of trophy hunting revenue have on conservation aims in the Bangweulu Wetlands? And what has been done to balance that loss with alternative funding?
The loss of hunting revenue was significant and had to be replaced with donor funding. Hunting is now being allowed at Bangweulu. It is important to have a plan to reduce reliance on donor funding and controlled hunting is probably the answer. We have plans to increase the buffalo population.
If conservation costs cannot be supported by tourism revenue alone, (and one thinks of how well prime wildlife areas are patronised compared to the examples we have discussed in the interview), what are the alternatives? How deep is the donor fund well and will it last forever?
The alternative for Bangweulu is trophy hunting and in Majete it is probably private leases. There is a lot of donor money for conservation, provided it is well spent. If there is a plan to replace the donor funding with income generation then donors can see some end in sight. I would not like to rely on donor funding and want to build financing models that work and can be applied to other parks in Africa.
What is your greatest concern for wildlife in Africa and why?
The greatest concern is human population increases and increased population pressures on all wildlife areas. Conservation buys no votes in Africa. Parks need to be profitable.
In your opinion, what is the future of Africa’s wildlife outside of protected areas, parks and reserves?
Outside of parks the future for wildlife is limited. We will lose our parks if there is not more energy applied to making them profitable. Wilderness and profitability can happen together.
How can you hope to protect wildlife outside of gazetted areas if the value of land is worth more per hectare without it? If any wildlife is seen as a threat to livelyhoods, to livestock and crops, to life and therefore removed?
It is a problem. Land alongside the Kruger National Park is now selling at R80,000 per hectare. Communities could lease small areas around parks to private investors for lodges and parks could fence those lodges into the park which would then provide a buffer zone for the park. That is one idea but there needs to be far more work done on the macro issues of parks in Africa. There are endless degrees awarded for all manner of micro issues but nobody studies the macro issue. If we don’t protect the parks there will be no micro issues to study.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.