Malawi is in the news again, for more wonderful things to do with conservation and wildlife. The news of the work being done in our little country has spread across the continent and the rest of the world and finally, Malawi is getting recognition as a spectacular holiday destination for those on the search for a unique and valuable safari experience.
This year, African Parks undertook yet another wildlife translocation including 250 elephants being moved from Liwonde National Park to Kasungu National Park in Malawi’s central region. This project took place in order to alleviate the pressure that the growing population of elephants are putting on Liwonde National Park and its boundaries, as well as to boost the population of elephants in the up-and-coming national park of Kasungu, managed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
I was lucky enough to have witnessed this incredible milestone this past weekend, thanks to some special friends involved in the project who invited us to tag along, and the experience was out of this world.
Liwonde National Park. Malawi’s flagship park is a beacon of victory for the conservation world. The park was established in 1973 after the area’s chief, Chief Liwonde, encouraged the protection of this wild area after his concerns with the declining wildlife populations. Situated in the southern region of Malawi, the park continued to struggle with poaching and deforestation and eventually, there were little more than a few antelope left in the park amidst a litter of more than 40,000 wire snares.
In 2015, in partnership with Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife, African Parks (AP) took over management of the park to restore it to its former glory, along with extraordinary measures to protect the flora and fauna within the park boundaries, as well as engage the surrounding communities to form a mutually beneficial relationship between the human population and the wildlife.
In just a few short years, AP established an outstanding ranger force and training facilities to protect and monitor the wildlife and trees; they fenced the entire perimeter of the park to mitigate the challenge of human-wildlife conflict, the biggest threat to the wildlife; and they have conducted a number of historic translocations and re-introductions of wild animals that once called Liwonde home. In 2016, the park was host to the largest elephant translocation in history. AP translocated over 500 elephants from Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve, Malawi’s Big 5 park, to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, Malawi’s oldest and largest reserve; all of which are under AP management. This was to take pressure of the landscape and boundaries in these smaller parks as their populations continued to thrive and grow, as well as establishing a healthy elephant population and genetic diversity in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Since then, AP have reintroduced to Liwonde: cheetah in 2017, lions in 2018, wild dogs in 2021 and in 2019 translocated 17 black rhino from Kwazulu Natal in South Africa to Liwonde to boost the population.
My husband and I set off from Lilongwe early morning, heading for Liwonde National Park as the sun was coming up. Our friend Roy sent us a message with a rough set of directions to the location of the capture team who were set up in the park and ready to collect a whole new bunch of elephants to send on their way to Kasungu. We found them in an open plain on the western side of the park right on the boundary fence. We made it in time, but we were by no means the only spectators. The entire surrounding community had made their way to the fence long before to watch the spectacle of the capture, bright coloured fabrics fluttering in the wind and the smell of freshly fried Mandasi floated through the air as a few enterprising vendors set up their stalls to satisfy the growing crowd.
We caught a glimpse of the shiny white helicopter ducking beneath the tree line to herd the selected bull elephant out into the open. As it continued to get closer, the growing sound of the propellors excited the crowd and the capture team prepared themselves, jumping on the back of the vehicles ready to move in when the time was right.
The elephant broke out of the bush and into the open as the helicopter continued to herd him towards us before dipping low enough for the vet to take aim and dart him with the tranquillizer in a shower of dust. Bingo. Perfect shot. He made a dash for it, rushing around in all directions to escape the big noisy bird in the sky before turning and facing the helicopter head-on in a display of defiance. He was soon staggering backwards as the drugs came into effect and gently toppled over onto his side… Go. The five capture vehicles and the transportation trucks took off and made haste for the snoozing goliath while everyone in the back held on for dear life as we tore over the jagged terrain.
As we reached the bull, the vets got to work doing their vital checks, taking blood samples and swabs, removing the dart and sanitizing the area. Within minutes, the soft ropes were secured around his feet and the truck that had parked alongside him released the crane downwards; the ropes were hooked on and soon he was upside down in the air, being deposited into the back of the lorry like a toy in a carnival game. The doors were shut and before I knew it, a few of the team and I were enclosed inside a container with a giant bull elephant.
Final veterinary checks were done and the rest of the team disembarked except for myself and Roy. At this point, he handed me a syringe and pointed to a large vein behind the elephant’s ear, “do you want to wake him up?”. Excuse me…? With trepidation and some guidance, I gently inserted the needle into the plump vein and deposited the liquid into his bloodstream. “Ok we need to get out now, they wake up quickly”. We heaved ourselves out of the small opening in the container before closing the door behind us, and sure enough, looking through a small peephole in the side of the metal box, within seconds we saw him start to stir, shifting around on the dusty floor before quickly finding his feet.
The team worked like a well-oiled machine, everyone knew what the mission was, and their role in it. With minimal discomfort and perfect health, the ellie was on his way to his new home in Kasungu National Park.
After the capture of a few more ellies, we made our way across the river and into the main area of the park to catch some hippos. These hippos were destined for the Bua River in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, another protected area under AP management. Harry in the helicopter had a tough time of it but managed to drive a few hippos out of the water and onto the floodplain. The first hippo to be darted dashed into the thicket before the medicine kicked in, which made the next part of the capture a bit of a challenge! She was eventually immobilized deep in a bush, so to get a visual to ensure she was fully tranquillized was not possible from the safety of the vehicles. Only the helicopter had eyes on the big beast, and so it was up to those in the sky to keep sight of her and make sure she was fully asleep before the team could be deployed.
After waiting a good 10 minutes to be absolutely sure the chubby lady was well and truly knocked out – the rush was on. First, in came the chainsaws… the hippo had found a cosy spot in the tall grass beneath a small Brachystegia tree. In order to clear some space for the team to work and lift her out, the tree needed a good trim of some of its smaller branches. They got to work, took the samples required and lifted her safely into the truck, soon to be joined by her fellow pod members.
We then moved on to tackle the rest of her crew. Four more hippos went down in one fell swoop but had spread themselves far apart, so the team split up, the truck visiting each individual as they were ready to be deposited into the back. We found ourselves with the largest chap, a big blubbery male. We watched from the safety of the vehicle as he slowly plodded around the dusty earth, nose in the air as if watching the swirling stars above his head. He found his way to the ground after a few minutes and we slowly approached him. A cloth was placed over his eyes and a stretch of fabric was wound gently around his gigantic jaws.
The vet set to work, examining the dart wound, inspecting his ears when suddenly the enormous creature reared up onto its front legs, jolting the whole team as they leapt back in fright. With his head raised to the sky, he softly swayed from side to side before settling back down to his resting position. Startled, we hung back as the vet re-approached the hippo. “Don’t worry” she said, “it’s just his breathing reflex”. It transpires that even while under the anaesthetic the hippo was overcome by instinct, and believing he was underwater propelled himself upwards for air. This continued at regular intervals as we established his tell-tale sign that he was about to go up again – a waggly tail, his underwater rudder.
This unbelievable experience was topped beyond measure on our last day when our good friend Harry offered us a ride in the helicopter as they went up to herd and dart the last remaining elephants to reach their ‘250’ target. An extremely talented and experienced pilot is Harry, and we found ourselves swooping up the mighty Shire River before veering off into woodland on the western banks to find our last breeding herd which we soon found milling about in a small clearing. Ducking and diving between the Borassus palm trees, Harry manoeuvered the magnificent chopper with accuracy and panache, pushing the elephants forward towards the open plain where the trucks and capture team were waiting to welcome them.
Soon they were approaching the target zone and Ben the vet began assessing the animals from above, calculating the dosage of the anaesthetics for each beautiful beast and preparing the darts. In order to guarantee a safe and accurate aim, we had to get up close, within 10ft of each elephant. The darts went down with perfect precision and soon the last elephants were checked, lifted and on their way to Kasungu National Park to start their new life.
On that day, the 31st July 2022, and World Ranger Day, African Parks translocated their 1000 elephant here in Malawi – a mark of an extraordinary feat and outstanding conservation success thanks to their painstaking hard work and passion for rehabilitating Africa’s wild places, all in partnership with Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife.
A big thank you to African Parks, Conservation Solutions and everyone else involved for allowing us to witness this incredible milestone, and for the work you do for the wildlife, the parks, and the communities around them.
If you’d like to visit the magnificent Liwonde National Park and the thriving wildlife within, check out our website to read all about it, and contact us about accommodation at Chimwala Camp ($), Mvuu Camp ($$), Mvuu Lodge ($$$) or Kuthengo Camp ($$$).