Not your average travel blog
Six months ago, the village we found yesterday, where we apprehended a man, was burned to the ground and returned to the wild. We saw remnants of scorched earth, charcoaled shacks and blackened beams as we stealthily operated under the sparse forest canopy. The people living in the park are doing so illegally. There is argument to suggest that some of them may not be aware of how irresponsible they are being while they cultivate and live off the parkland, but after multiple evictions, naivety from the locals just won’t wash with authorities.
Our man in custody told us that he was sold the land by a village chief. He maybe telling the truth, but that doesn’t mean he can simply be allowed to continue farming on protected land. However he came about his plot, it wasn’t a sensible way to conduct business. He now won’t be able to communicate with his family for at least a few days as he sits in the police cells, while authorities plan a more extensive “cleanse” of the encroached area. His statement will help with investigations (along with all of our information and covert photos). Of course, if it were possible for him to call his family in the bush, I’m sure he would do so.
There hasn’t been a recorded war or invasion (followed by repellency) in Malawi since the Germans came here in World War One. Nowadays, relative to many African nations, Malawi adopts a politically correct, non-genocidal approach when evicting illegal squatters. Malawi is a certainly a peaceful nation and apart from some bar brawls involving a few machetes or handguns, the country is extremely safe. It wouldn’t be too bold to say that there is more violence in any major city around the world, than there is in the entire Malawian nation. Of course there are horror stories of muggings and violent crime, but in rural towns where there are no street lights (or even mains electricity), anyone would be a fool to wander around after dark. There are trails in Malawi that I would rather walk a mile on, than I would through the back streets of suburban London, Paris, or New York. There is a higher chance of a mamba or cobra veering up at you in the dark than there is of a local, which either way, may be good reason to avoid meandering at night. Far away from home, things just seem a lot worse and the unknown is a scary place…especially in the bush.
The illegal tenants of the park will need to be questioned and moved, and only the main protagonists arrested and sentenced. The fact that the same people return to the same areas to commit the same illegal crimes, creates a reoccurring headache for the authorities. Laws simply aren’t followed due to lack of respect, inaccurate education, low levels of policing and ultimately, soft sentencing. The consequences of living here are worth the risk and if it means they can earn a little extra by housing and feeding a nomadic ivory poacher who will undoubtedly inform them of a meaty carcass every few months, a few days in jail may likely just be considered part of life. Sadly, these activities will be an ongoing project for the anti-poaching unit, the police and the parks department for a very long time. Sneaky suspicions of a more practical plan for the area are in the air and even though we’ve aided the ongoing fight against poaching and further devastation of protected ecosystems and culture by extracting our relatively tame and aloof chap, the fight most certainly continues.
I hear it hasn’t been uncommon for Zambian police to arrest Malawian Rangers around the country’s border. The border of Kasungu park is the country’s border with Zambia. It is not clear where the line between the countries is. The border seems to be repositioned when police or locals move the concrete border poles or make them disappear altogether. A fence cannot be erected for two reasons, 1) animals that need to roam would be restricted and disorientated, and more importantly 2) poachers vandalise fences to make animal snares. As this is the most remote and arguably the most difficult part of the park (and border) to police, fence-restricted animals wandering towards snares on their ancient migratory routes would be (and has been) devastating.
I’m informed that Malawian Park Rangers have been shot at and chased on both sides of the wandering border. They have been accused of burning houses on the Zambia side (where there is a corridor of land between two national parks and) where Zambians legally live and farm. Illegal trafficking of contraband is however, rife. I’m told Zambian police have been seen travelling by vehicle in the Malawian park, but there is no road into the park from the Zambian side. Illegal access from Malawi must have been obtained.
There’s also talk of corrupt police being paid by the poachers to allow safe transport of illegal merchandise out of the park and into Zambia (I haven’t delved deep to find hard evidence of this, but it is arguably happening). It is clear that once through the park and over the border (wherever it may be), it is relatively easy to move materials into Zambia and far from the possible policing of Kasungu. Malawian Rangers cannot police land that is neither Malawian nor national park. Understandably, it’s clear why there are so many convoluted issues on either side of the border. Simply, it’s a mess.
It baffles me why more countries can’t agree and work together on borders that they simply don’t use, but both need to set aside for the benefit of their mutual wildernesses. It doesn’t baffle me however, that poorly educated and naive folk choose to abuse poorly policed land as a means to their own immediate gain. The areas into which the natives encroach and carry out immediately-inconsequential crimes are very low on the pyramid of illegal activity. The risks are low and the alternatives are scarce. However, although riskier, harbouring more serious, sporadic and illusive ivory poachers is also the easiest way to receive higher payouts. Farmers might do a little jail time and have to move their village every few months, but while it’s so difficult to catch the high end criminals, it’s worth it – especially when the ivory hunters stop by with possible wads of cash and a hefty piece of meat for them to share. Sadly, this kind of arrangement filters upwards amongst Rangers, police and rural village chiefs. As with all positions of authority around globe, all are exposed to corruption, and sadly few are strong enough to resist it. It’s heartbreaking that it is the main reason why remote elephant poaching is still prevalent and attempts to conserve and protect dwindling populations in this area of Southern Africa are failing. It really isn’t hard to understand and see that the more humans expand and extort the wild, the fewer resources and wild creatures survive. Culture however, dies too.
On my travels to date, to large areas of North and South America, much of Europe, slices of South East Asia, titbits of the Middle East, Australasia and now just a small area of Southern Africa; there is an overwhelming argument that humanitarianism and wildlife conservation simple do not and cannot go hand in hand. The only way we can effect and allow both to prosper is if we change and develop our mindset and approach to how the size of own population, and how we provide it with resources, effects our environment. We are aware of it. Many countries have even slowed their population growth, yet our lifestyle and behaviours have not caught up with our arrogance. As unsurprised as I am, it’s still sad to encounter the exact same life patterns in every new country I visit. I’m no specialist, but it’s also unfortunate to find such ignorance amongst the majority of people who care to comment on the subject of population – most of which are western educated. Most people still believe that third world families, the poor especially, are still having half a dozen children each. Only a very small minority are doing this. Africa is merely catching up and the population is only increasing merely due to more children surviving into adulthood. The number of children being born on the continent has declined to a similar number-per-adult as America, Europe and Asia. This can only be a good thing for the future, but as with the rest of the world, huge adjustments are going to have to be made.
As the most enlightened species on the planet which can deliberate over the effects of our consumption, we have an obligation to all living things. In many places, saving humanity would ironically mean simply ending the search for eternal youth, longevity of life and absolute cures for such things as malaria, cancer or any terminal illness. Let’s not begrudge ourselves the forwarding of science, the developments of medical treatments or education for all. Although extravagantly advancing human numbers in recent centuries, modern efforts have already seen a healthy decline in population growth. If we persist on these “humanitarian” quests then we must continue to balance the equation of life by not continuing to birth too many children or by keeping everyone alive well past “their time”. A certain generation of society might be learning about peak and efficient population size in the western world and in Asia, but where education is lacking (at least on large sections of the African continent), we are keeping more and more people alive through medicine and the population continues to grow. Amongst the extreme poor, advice and knowledge of how to address the efficiency of a population size is still behind developed countries, but large families are on the decline. We do forget however, that these under developed nations are the least resource-consuming on earth (coal, natural gas and oil) and sadly, they naturally fall back onto the most immediate and lucrative sources which cause the least disruption to their farms – the dangerous and sought after wild. There might be extreme efforts to try and share knowledge, but wealthy westerners are trying to teach the poorer and uneducated nations with one hand, while bidding against each other for their resources with the other! Where people lack both education and alternatives, they simply do what man has done for centuries: they eradicate and cultivate wilderness for survival, pollute somewhere which is out of sight, grow population for a stronger workforce….and the more prolific they are at these things, the more prosperous they become. Ironically, saving lives in a time of peaking population is making it harder to save our planet. We’re killing ourselves, because as humans we’re very slow to break both our arrogance and ignorance.
The illegals in the park might be misplaced or misguided Malawians; some arguably are wrongly or poorly educated, but the fact is that they are acting illegally. The majority of them might just be humble farmers, but cultivating a national park simply isn’t helping any scenario. The damage isn’t just occurring on the “protected” land, our behaviour is eating away at the base of southern African culture. Irrelevant of whether they know or not, if people are within a park border, they are breaking the law. If educated properly, there would be a harsher realisation that what they are doing is detrimental to the longevity of lifestyle and culture. Even without tourism in mind, opportunities for future generations are currently being ruined. With the rapid growth of Malawian (and African) population, people continue to strip the land of resources. The harsh and sad reality is that the government might lose any interest to provide support, if they know there is nothing in an area worth saving. If the wildlife disappears; the culture, the rural education, and any aid for farmers, all disappear too. Sadly, opportunities to be corrupt strips communities of any lifelines and even charities have nothing to save. They leave the area too, taking with them any support or network a culture and population often needs. Often a casualty of war (it may not be on Malawi’s doorstep, but the ivory trade is funding a war whether we want to admit it or not), the decline of the wild will leave an area and its people in poverty. Like many other nations, Malawi’s population growth weakens its livelihood and immediate, greedy gain ultimately leads to long term loss. We have the luxury of knowing the people should act like squirrels, conserving their resources for times when they need them. This goes for both rural folk and the more fortunate alike. Unfortunately, the natives are unfamiliar with the bushy-tailed nut huggers; they don’t live here.
With conservation of both the wild and their own heritage at stake, it is not hard to see that many understandable reflex responses, to arguably forced or inherent lifestyles, are sadly both immoral and unsustainable. Although poorly policed, the law about protecting the park is the correct one. It is merely hard to strike a harmonious balance and with things as they are, it’s also hard to see how the ongoing failings to conserve a nation’s livelihood and environment will eventually end…
Have we gotten to the point where we should accept a sad fate? That isn’t the way of nature. We don’t succeed by doing nothing, and this wilderness, along with many others, is still very much alive.