Not your average travel blog
While at the triathlon in Cape Maclear, and through no late night liquid coercion, Bjorn and I accepted a welcoming invite from Matteau, Remi and Leonie to visit them in Kasungu National Park. Matteau currently runs the volunteer anti poaching unit, operating with the permission of the government and the Malawian department of national parks. Remi voluntarily and meticulously gathers data on the troubled elephant population in the park for the Dutch-based, KasunguElephant charity. Leonie is on its friendly and involved board of directors. Unfortunately, we’ve come at a rather delicate time, as currently and defiantly, Matt is the only member of the anti-poaching unit operating in the park which (should) cover over 2300 square kilometres (1430 square miles) and shares a problematic border with Zambia…but more on that later.
As I have a little experience of visiting national parks and areas of conservation, as well as moving around off grid for a while, I have been asked to come and take a look at Kasungu. Historically, Kasungu National Park (KNP) was famous for being The Gem of Malawi. Only recently, it was home to Africa’s big five game (African Elephant, African Lion, Cape Buffalo, Leopard and black and white Rhino). It is still detailed on the nation’s 50KW bank note and if you discount Lake Malawi, it is the second largest national park in the country (Nyika being the oldest and biggest).
KNP is located in the central region of the country and the landscape consists of woodland and bush, grassland and low-rising hills, small lakes and wide marshy areas with rampant rivers in the rainy season (currently dry, through July to December). Hippos have set up camp here and are fairly immovable (not that I want try and move a hippo). Water buffalo, zebra, elephant and lion are still active in the park and numerous alert antelope also wander around. Countless snakes, bugs, birds and smaller bush-dwelling creatures cover the landscape, as well as jackal, hyena, and the ever illusive (to me anyway), leopard. Hopefully, I can have a word with one while I’m here. They simply don’t want to make friends.
KNP is only 160km (100 miles) from Lilongwe and with the roads as they are currently, about a three hour drive in a decent truck. Along the road and through many remote villages, you do get to go past an ex-presidents house, and it’s quite a spectacle! It’s a massive presidential palace, which apparently the Chinese are trying to turn into a casino (in the middle of nowhere). Malawian gossip at its best….maybe… Apparently, KNP also has many important Iron Age archaeological sites, although this is hardly mentioned in any tourism info I have seen. Annually in the stormy times (January to June) it can sometimes close due to overly moist conditions.
Bjorn wanted to check out KNP with me, as he used to bring clients here regularly to see the wildlife. A huge park with fairly accessible roads within it, it is a section of Malawi that is now rarely visited. The trouble with KNP is that even though it has a lot of wildlife, the vantage points and viewing areas are few and far between. Other parks offer both a slightly easier drive (even though much longer) to base camp, and steeper hills and vistas to capture more precious holiday snaps (although I’d like to challenge that theory while I’m here!). They also offer slightly more varied bush. The altitude (1000m) and the flatness of KNP restricts the type of plants that grow here. Some might think it’s a little limited – I think it’s beautiful. The fact remains; it has everything the big five need and that alone should be enough to draw sightseers and wildlife spotters. It should also be a catalyst for anyone running the place to try and reinvest and reintroduce the soul back into this African hot spot. If you want to leave the lodge to explore KNP, you currently need to put in a little extra effort. However, an abundance of wildlife IS still here, it’s just hard to find. Bjorn and I can see the potential everywhere we go. It is however, sad that so much of it is overlooked by the parks department and the lodge concession that currently operates here. Run that down the chain, and not only do tourists miss out, but because it’s being managed so poorly, the wildlife and the park itself is struggling.
I dislike bad mouthing poorly-run operations around protected conservation areas. To me, these are the most important sections of land we have left to understand the lessons that the wild can teach us. Sadly, I have found numerous complaints and issues over the operational and logistical failures of what should be a successful, tourism-funded and even profitable conservation area and lodge. Poaching and encroaching is rife in the park and even though there are numerous rangers located within its boundaries, there can be no argument that their conservation system has, and still is, failing. Similar to many conservation projects around the world, the survival of Kasungu National Park and all its wild is currently on a knife edge. You only have to look at the rapidly dwindling elephant population in the area to understand that whatever the government has attempted to implement, they lack success. In less than 10 years, elephant numbers have fallen from over 800, to less than 50. They don’t appear to be implementing new ideas and neither does the supposedly influential lodge which (attempts) to bring tourism into the park.
It might be struggling at the moment, but there are people here who are trying to turn things around; hard working staff who understand what conservation means for their country and home, as well as dedicated volunteers such as Matt and Remi, living on shoe strings and even on their savings to keep this wilderness alive. It’s humbling and commendable. However ultimately, they need a helping hand, along with a stronger and more influential voice of support from powerful people.
With increasing poaching and encroaching problems stripping the park of its heartbeat, it’s once famous status is now bruised and haemorrhaging all over the north country. I hate to point fingers, so for now I’ll save my more detailed notes for later posts, but much like other conservation areas, it’s a melting pot of intertwined problems set deeply through multiple generations and organisations; seemingly impossible to untangle and resolve. Africa is a continent which continues to bare the burdens of everyone’s invasion, as well as its own modern doings and influences. Changing things overnight is impossible but compared to the amount of time some of the creatures could have left to avoid extinction, a slow change won’t be a successful one.
I will focus on the projects I’m here to make a difference on. Right now, developing opinions of Kasungu National Park unfortunately, is not what I’m here for. It is however, a grave concern and something I may want to return to again in the future. I have had an emotional response to its struggles, but what is possible here; with the lodge, the involved characters and the remaining wildlife is potentially great. The unrealised gift is still a colossal one. It’s a tough pill to swallow for both Bjorn and I and the positive impact it could be having on a country and on an important culture is unquestionable.
Tomorrow, I join an anti-poaching reconnaissance patrol, deep into the park. Near to the controversial Zambian border, I should experience some of what the true soldiers of the poaching war in Malawi are having to deal with.