Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Elephants come to visit

A final installment  from Malawi 2015, in the form of a wee report and pics from Liwonde National Park and the R&R phase of Arran High School's expedition, and some thoughts on Cecil the Lion.

We camped in our little tents at Mvuu Camp, perched on the banks of the Shire River.  Mvuu means hippo, and as anticipated we were serenaded day and night by the snorts and roars of neighbouring hippos frolicking on the river banks. I was bowled over by the biodiversity of the place.  In a day of wildlife watching we saw over 50 species of bird and mammal, with kingfishers, night herons, giant crocodiles and various birds of prey all vying for our attention, it was hard to know where to look.

 The stars of the show however were the elephants. On the first night I was woken at about four in the morning to the sound of guards calling softly in to the night.  "Njobvu... Njobvuu..." I listened intently and remembered that this is the Chichewa word for elephant.

What followed was one of the most intense wildlife experiences of my life. Frightening yes, but thrilling too. I became aware of approaching noises, crashing, thudding, and low rumbles.  Elephants are quiet, so this must be a lot of them to make such noise. As the dawn light glimmered, I peered through the zip of my tent and counted.  Fifteen elephants surrounded us, mums with babies. The guards had been calling to a male in must, who they were following around the camp- thankfully he moved on quickly. As group leader I was flummoxed.  What should I do?  Assessing the hazard of a herd of elephants in camp is not something we learn at Mountain leader school! With nowhere else to go I decided it was best not to wake the team and risk upsetting the elephants. At daybreak the herd moved away, and a few of the early risers got to see them as they trundled off through the thorns.

I've been back a couple of weeks, but Liwonde has been very much on my mind since I flew home, especially with all the recent coverage of illegal poaching and trophy hunting in Zimbabwe, which is not far south from Malawi. It appears that the tragic loss of Cecil the lion has gone some way to highlighting the plight of Africa's wildlife. What it has also done, in my mind, is flag up the disconnect between wildlife tourism and ordinary Africans, between poverty and conservation. Most of the people living close to Hwange National Park had never heard of Cecil the Lion. Meanwhile ordinary Zimbabweans endure food shortages, violence and political turmoil.  Interest in wildlife, whether for conservation or hunting, is linked to privilage and seen as a post colonial hangover. I'm as outraged as the next person at the slaughter of Cecil, but he is just one lion among many who will loose their lives this year, and meanwhile wildlife loss on an even more spectacular scale happens outside of the parks, through deforestation as ordinary people cut firewood to sell as charcoal in order to make a living. We must do more for conservation at every level, tackle habitat loss inside and outside of the parks, and to do so, we need to tackle the poverty that aflicts rural communities in Southern Africa.

An organisation that aims to do this is Children in the Wilderness who describe themselves as "a non-profit organisation to facilitate sustainable conservation through leadership development and education of rural children in Africa." Children in the Wilderness is supported by Wilderness Safaris, who run Mvuu camp, where we stayed  at Liwonde.  They bring local children to Liwonde to learn about conservation and the wildlife of the park. They don't just work in Malawi, they can be found as far afield as Namibia, Botswana and the Sechelles.  They support literacy schemes within the schools and through Eco Camps and mentoring. Projects include reforestation initiatives, working to support girls to stay in school and scholarships for deserving students.  If you've been distressed by the fate of Cecil, its worth offering them your support.

Finally, I think we need to put our own house in order.  Hen Harriers are perched on the brink of extinction in England thanks to hunting interests here in the British Isles.  Hunting for fun may seem barbaric, but it is also big business, putting money before conservation interests. This sunday is HEN HARRIER DAY, a day to celebrate one of our most beautiful wild birds, and ask why more isn't being done to protect it.