In Central Malawi, nestled below Chipata Mountain and slightly to the west of Lake Malawi, lies Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, Malawi’s largest remaining wild landscape and oldest wildlife reserve. The reserve was home to 1,500 elephants in the 1990s. By 2015, there were fewer than 100 left. Decades of poaching and lawlessness decimated the reserve’s wildlife and the tourism economy that supported the livelihoods of local communities. Warming temperature, drought, and floods associated with climate change pose additional challenges to conservation efforts.
Today, in 2020, Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve is thriving once again. African Parks took over management in August 2015 and together with the Government of Malawi and donors, including USAID, transformed the reserve through best practices in conservation and natural resource management. They fenced park boundaries, cleared poachers’ traps, improved infrastructure for patrolling, and trained and equipped ranger teams. They also conducted one of the world’s largest wildlife translocations to reintroduce 486 elephants and 1,450 other animals to the reserve.
The reintroduced animals are reproducing, the landscape is healing, and communities are once again benefitting from the tourism revenue that the reserve attracts. Tourism has increased by over 400 percent since 2015, which has enabled African Parks to contribute to the development of vital community projects, like bore holes for clean water, and scholarships for vulnerable children.
African Parks is now also able to focus on fulfilling one of its core strategic objectives: advancing environmental education and outreach for communities and youth around Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.
The reserve recently completed an environmental education center, one of only a few such centers in Malawi. There, you will find Tadala M’banga (see photo), the Nkhotakota Extension and Education Assistant for African Parks. She leads interpretation for the new center and works directly with local artisans, historians and community members to create engaging exhibits on the rich natural and human heritage of the landscape, and to tell that story to visitors.
“My favorite parts of the job are interacting with people from diverse backgrounds to help them understand their role in conservation and engaging in activities with students and community groups to restore and protect the natural environment,” said Tadala.
The Nkhotakota environment education center contributes to the curriculum of local schools. Children learn about the history of the park and about natural resources and animal behavior.
The center also supports income generation for nearby communities by displaying local products for sale. Participating community members sell moringa powder, honey, and crafts to the increasing number of tourists who visit the park. Local communities also make arrangements with the park to harvest resources, such as bamboo, reeds, fruits, and mushrooms for both commercial and domestic use.
The U.S. Forest Service, with support from USAID, has worked and continues to work directly with Tadala and her colleagues to advance their interpretation and design skills and help them conduct heritage research with local communities and the Malawi Department of Museums and Monuments to preserve oral histories of the area. The partnership also works directly with youth. With U.S. Forest Service support, young community members wrote a comic book to inform their families who live around the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve about the danger of wildfires and the impact they have on wildlife and communities. Those youth, and their supportive parents and community members, are now the reserve's greatest advocates for wildfire safety.
The Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve education center raises the profile of the reserve and gives local communities a platform for telling their stories, selling their products, and taking pride in their historic landscape.
“There has been a great change over the years. Through the environmental education programs and awareness meetings, the surrounding communities now understand the value of natural resources and wildlife, and this has triggered a positive attitude towards conservation, enabling them to engage in activities that help in curbing environmental issues affecting them,” said Tadala.
The partnership has also designed a reserve-wide ecosystem monitoring network that will provide critical insights on ecological metrics over the long term. This network includes over 200 monitoring plots that will allow African Parks and its partners to track trends in themes of interest, like wildlife populations, incidence and intensity of fire, and vegetation dynamics across the reserve’s rugged terrain. These monitoring data are valuable in the context of climate change. With this information in-hand, African Parks will be better positioned to make targeted, informed management actions to achieve their conservation objectives amidst shifts in temperature and precipitation.
John Kerkering is the East Africa Coordinator for U.S. Forest Service International Programs. He works with colleagues at USAID and other local partners across the region to cultivate partnerships of technical cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service on issues like climate change management, wildlife management, protected area management, and community outreach and engagement.
Katie Moulton is a communications advisor for U.S. Forest Service International Programs. She also supports the USAID Environment Office in Nairobi.