Antelope, elephants, leopards and lions are grazing and reproducing again in a reserve in Malawi, resurrected through a repopulation project of biblical proportions.
In only eight years, South African non-government organization (NGO) African Parks Network reintroduced more than 2,500 animals in the sprawling Majete Wildlife Reserve next to the Shire River, the main river in the landlocked southern African nation.
“Majete is a success story of a Noah’s Ark operation,” head of the organization Peter Fearnhead said.
The reserve was launched in 1955, but poachers gradually hunted almost all the animals.
Only a few baboons remained in the 700km2 park when African Parks took over its management after signing a 25-year partnership deal with the Malawi government in 2003.
“There was no control actually. The last elephant was poached in 1992,” park director Patricio Ndadzela said, adding that a decade ago there were several hundred. “No tourist came to this place. There was simply nothing.”
Majete has since become the new home of 742 impalas, 359 sable antelope, 306 buffalo, 250 elephants, 177 zebras, 158 warthogs, seven black rhinos, and four leopards — and the list goes on.
“We only relocate animals that were once present here,” ranger Fyson Suwedi said, which means no giraffes or ostriches will be brought to the reserve that is now completely fenced.
In June, some lions will arrive to complete the “Big Five” collection, Africa’s five trademark animals that are a major tourist draw: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo.
African Parks has built new roads as well as a reception center with a curio shop and restaurant. It also refurbished the base camp, where elephants pass by the window while you brush your teeth.
The organization has invested US$15 million to revive the park. Currently, 85 percent of Majete’s yearly budget — around US$1 million — comes from donations.
However, more revenue could pour in with the opening of a luxury lodge to be run by a private operator, especially if it attracts foreign visitors.
“With the new lodge, we will start marketing this place for international tourists,” field operations manager Dorian Tilbury said.
The reserve also hopes to attract more local visitors despite high poverty levels. Malawi’s biggest city, Blantyre, is only 70km away.
Locals are also reaping the benefits.
“Most of the people employed here were probably poachers. They had to poach for meat, there is no economy in this area,” said veterinarian Andre Uys, who oversaw most of the animal transfers.
About 130 people and at least as many seasonal workers from the local community have jobs at the reserve.
“Our objective is to make sure that the value generated by the park is captured by local people for local people,” Fearnhead said.
Locals also have a new clinic, a school and water sources thanks to African Parks.
The organization manages seven parks on the same model in six African countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Rwanda, Chad and Zambia, and is soon to open an eighth.