MAJETE WILDLIFE RESERVE, Malawi
Two decades ago, this patch of Malawian forest was almost emptied of wildlife. The last elephants had been poached. The lions had been caught in snare traps. Other species died off as their range was diced by machete-wielding farmers.
Now the animals have returned in a modern-day Noah’s ark — a bold attempt by private philanthropists and environmentalists to move wildlife from other parts of the continent.
Hundreds of miles from this dense forest, the animals were scooped up in harnesses dangling from construction cranes. They were carried into white metal storage containers, with the occasional elephant trunk peeking out. Then they crisscrossed southern Africa in commercial planes and flatbed trucks.
By almost any measure, Africa’s wildlife has suffered immensely in recent decades. Over 90 percent of the continent’s elephants have vanished over the last century. The lion population has crashed by more than 40 percent since 1993. There are fewer than 1,000 mountain gorillas in the wild. There are only two northern white rhinos in existence.
African Parks, the nonprofit organization that arranges the shipments of the animals, aims to restore populations that once existed in some of the world’s most remote places. It has trucked 520 elephants across Malawi. It flew 20 black rhinos from South Africa to Rwanda. This month, it started bringing rhinos back to Chad, where they were wiped out three decades ago.
And in southern Malawi, on a recent overcast morning, Craig Reid dragged the carcass of a gazelle across a grassy enclosure in Liwonde National Park, north of Majete. Three cheetahs growled at him from about a foot away, showing their teeth.
“Craig, what are you doing?” Reid’s wife, Andrea, asked nervously, as the cheetahs inched closer.
Two weeks later, the enclosure would be filled with imported lions, the next set of animals in shipping crates, part of an experiment in turning back the clock to a time of greater biodiversity. After that, rhinos were expected.
African Parks isn’t the first organization to translocate wildlife, a practice that is decades old and brought gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park from Canada in the 1990s, and reintroduced the giant pandas to China in 2011.
Other groups have moved animals across the continent, but the organization is the first to do it on such a large scale — while managing parks in some of the most violence-plagued countries in Africa. It operates Chinko National Park in the Central African Republic, where a conflict has left thousands dead and forced displaced families into the wildlife refuge. It runs Garamba National Park in Congo, a nation scarred by a brutal civil war. Last year, four of the park’s rangers were murdered by poachers, who hack off elephant tusks that can fetch $1,000 a pound in the ivory market in China.
Amid the destruction of species across much of Africa, some subpopulations have nevertheless thrived in certain areas. In South Africa, for example, where the majority of the wildlife live on relatively secure private conservancies, a number of species have flourished, including lions. In Malawi, where the government has turned its attention to conservation, in part to expand its tourism industry, the elephant population has surged.
“We can use these thriving populations to seed other areas,” said Peter Fearnhead, 49, the CEO of African Parks, which is based in Johannesburg.
Fearnhead has been involved in conservation since he was a 13-year-old in Zimbabwe, where he pushed his school to establish a 2,000-acre wildlife reserve. After working for South Africa’s national park service, where he focused on expanding the government’s reserves, he turned his sights to the rest of the continent. He founded African Parks in 2000.
Forging relationships with governments, and flying wild animals across the continent, can pose an enormous challenge. In Chad, the rhino operation took months of negotiating, piles of import paperwork and a team of lawyers and logisticians. The work requires rare skills; the biography of one of African Parks’ veterinarians, Andre Uys, reads: “Andre has immobilized tens of thousands of animals in 13 African countries.”
Translocation is also enormously expensive, and securing the parks requires its own massive investment — the group now has the largest counter-poaching force of any private organization on the continent, around 1,000 rangers. But it has a substantial pipeline to the world’s wealthiest donors. Last year, Britain’s Prince Harry was named its president. In 2016, the group raised nearly $25 million, mostly from European benefactors.
After the surge of poaching and environmental destruction over the last few decades, some of the continent’s most important parks were left empty. Majete and Liwonde offer a window into the collapse of conservation in Africa.
Majete was established in 1955 and Liwonde in 1973 by government authorities in this former British colony. Both lacked fencing, so elephants wandered freely, destroying crops of nearby farmers and killing dozens of people. There was nothing to stop poachers, either. When African Parks assumed management of Liwonde in 2015, rangers found 27,000 wire snares used to capture wildlife. Just after the group took over the park, a rhino was trapped and eventually died.
“It gives you a picture of how completely overrun the park was,” Reid said.
Before African Parks could start importing wildlife, it first had to construct the basic infrastructure of a park. In both Majete and Liwonde, the group erected hundreds of miles of fencing; trained large forces of armed wildlife rangers; installed vast surveillance networks of cameras and sensors; and placed satellite collars on some of the most vulnerable species.
“Very simply, if a park is not being managed then it will be lost,” Fearnhead said.
Then came the imports, with all of their complications. How strong a sedative do you need to ship an elephant across southern Africa? (One 10,000 times as potent as morphine.) How far ahead should the cheetahs arrive before the lions? (A few weeks, at least.) What kind of paperwork do you need to arrive with a lion at a commercial airport in Malawi? (A lot.)
Overall, the organization’s track record has been good, according to wildlife experts. Of the 520 elephants it transported across Malawi, only two died in transit. But problems have sometimes come after the animals arrive, if it turns out that the parks are still not very safe.
Starting in 2008, African Parks translocated several lions to Liuwa Plain, a park it manages in Zambia. In 2012, one was killed by poachers, and another fled through porous fencing into neighboring Angola, where it, too, was probably slaughtered.
Many conservationists praise the translocations, but some suggest that the model of establishing fenced-in parks falls short of the ideal solution, allowing species to migrate freely.
“These fenced-off places are a good start, and they should be part of a toolbox but should not be the only approach. In countries where we could allow for the large-scale migration of animals, that’s the more natural approach,” said Bas Huijbregts, African species manager at the World Wildlife Fund.
Malawi offered a relatively easy place to try to revive the wildlife population — a peaceful nation with a government amenable to working with conservation groups, and communities receptive to an anti-poaching message — assuming the elephants would finally stop trampling their crops and their relatives.
“For years, this park was like a thorn in the flesh, with animals causing havoc in our village,” said Maria Ndalama, 50, who lives just outside of Liwonde. “Finally they built a fence that keeps the elephants at bay, and we’re grateful for that.”
African Parks is now embarking on riskier projects. In Chad, for example, it is flying rhinos to one of the poorest regions in the world, where rampant poaching led to a 95-percent decline in the elephant population between 2002 and 2010. It recently began managing Pendjari park in Benin, which the country’s government said was “dying a slow death” due largely to mismanagement.
In the long term, the organization hopes that revenue from tourists will help sustain the costs of managing parks. In places like Liwonde and Majete, that’s still a long way off. Last year, only 10 percent of Liwonde’s $3 million operating budget, for example, came from tourist fees.
“We have two options,” said Fearnhead. “One is we allow these places to disappear. The other is we make our own plan.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that only two, not three, northern white rhinos remain in existence.