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. Ninety 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 three 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.
The cheetahs had been flown in as part of a process that African Parks has refined in recent years. The group both transports animals to areas devoid of wildlife and works with governments to manage 15 parks across the continent - some of them in war zones. In the course of its work, the organization learned that in South Africa, privately run wildlife conservancies had protected a once-threatened cheetah population. There were now more of the animals than the conservancies could support.
"We decided it was the right time to bring some back here," said Reid, Liwonde's park manager. The cheetahs had arrived sedated at the local airport in crates reading "LIVE ANIMALS."
On the recent morning in the animal enclosure, Reid eventually coaxed the cheetahs to follow the bloody gazelle through an opening in the fence, back into the near-wild: a pristine, verdant 220-square-mile park that had itself come back from the brink.
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."
WASHINGTON - In March, as part of Scott Pruitt's aggressive campaign to roll back federal regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed relaxing standards for storing potentially toxic waste produced by coal-burning power plants.
EPA officials cited a study indicating that forcing utilities to get rid of unlined coal ash ponds too quickly could strain the electrical grid in several regions of the country.
But when environmental advocates scrutinized the specifics, they discovered a problem: The evidence cited was not established scientific research. Instead, the agency was relying on a four-page document by the utility industry's trade association, the Edison Electric Institute, which has acknowledged that its conclusions were not "part of or a summary of a larger study."
Lisa Evans, a lawyer for the group Earthjustice, was among the advocates who seized on that omission, as well as on gaps in technical data and other evidence, to argue that the agency's action was ill-advised and legally flimsy.
"The record does not support the proposal," Evans said, noting that the Obama administration's 2015 requirement on coal ash drew on years of public input and peer-reviewed scientific studies. "I've never seen a rule like this, in terms of the thinness of the evidence."
The coal ash proposal is among the more than half-dozen major moves that the EPA has seen snagged by procedural and legal problems. The delays threaten to tarnish Pruitt's image as an effective warrior in President Donald Trump's battle against federal regulations, a reputation that has so far saved the EPA administrator his job amid an array of investigations into ethical and management lapses.
Earlier this month, the White House Office of Management and Budget sent back a proposal to ease emissions restrictions for refurbished heavy-duty trucks and ordered the agency to analyze the proposal's economic impact. That move followed a separate OMB request in April that the EPA offer "some analysis" to show that it would actually yield environmental benefits.
The EPA's own science advisers have called for a review of the "adequacy" of research used not only to justify revoking the truck rule but to reverse fuel-efficiency standards for cars. And over the past year, courts have halted or reversed multiple Pruitt initiatives, in one case forcing the EPA to restore limits on methane leaks from oil and gas operations after a federal appeals panel concluded that their suspension was illegal.
Jeffrey Holmstead, a partner at the law firm Bracewell LLP, who headed the EPA's air and radiation office under President George W. Bush, thinks it is "premature" to evaluate how durable Pruitt's reforms will be.
"Early on, before they really had their folks in place, they sent over a lot of rules that didn't have a lot of technical support," Holmstead said, adding that in recent months the Senate has confirmed numerous appointees who previously served at the EPA and so are more experienced in working with career staff. "A lot more work is getting done."
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement that the agency "has been vigorously carrying out President Trump's regulatory reform agenda, consistent with applicable laws and executive orders." He noted that last year alone, nearly 40 actions - "including 10 economically significant regulations" - completed their interagency review at the OMB.
But federal records and interviews reveal how much White House officials and staff in other agencies have questioned whether the EPA is meeting the legal requirements necessary to revise Obama-era actions.
The OMB recently posted a document with tracked changes highlighting an extensive rewrite of the agency's proposal to revoke stricter tailpipe emissions for cars and light trucks. Pruitt concluded that higher mileage targets for vehicles produced between model years 2022 and 2025 are "not appropriate" because automakers can't achieve them. Among the red-line changes was an added reference noting that some outside groups, including the Union for Concerned Scientists, believe that the thresholds can be met.
"The rules are coming in undercooked," said Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate for the watchdog group Public Citizen.
The agency, for example, is drafting a "supplemental rule" to one proposed last year that would change federal oversight over more than half of the nation's water bodies. It already is being sued over its push to revoke the 2015 "Waters of the U.S." rule, which affects activities that could drain wetlands and intermittent streams. According to officials, the supplemental language would address White House concerns that the EPA needs to clarify what would actually take the place of the regulation once it is abolished.
Despite such missteps, both critics and supporters of Pruitt agree he has been effective in reshaping the agency through his executive powers. He issued directives changing what sort of data can be used to calculate air-quality standards throughout the country and which studies can factor into public health rules. He scrapped a two-decades-old policy requiring that once a power plant was deemed a "major" polluter, it would always face the most stringent regulations, even if its emissions fell.
The administrator is not letting up, either. His agency's recent "unified agenda" signals an aggressive deregulatory push in the months ahead.
Holmstead points out that on significant actions, such as reevaluating vehicle fuel-efficiency standards or undoing the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, the EPA's final decisions matter far more than the initial ones.
"On the big rules, we still haven't seen the final rules, and that's where you see the record that has to justify things," he said.
Yet critics are looking to exploit the early procedural errors as they challenge Pruitt's efforts in court. More than 70 lawsuits have been filed against the EPA's regulatory actions, according to an analysis by the office of Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del. Of the six cases that have had a full court review, the agency has lost four and delayed arguments in one.
With the proposal on coal ash - intended to give states and utilities more latitude when disposing of the waste - opponents have seized on the fact that there's no study underpinning the EPA's position. The current requirement means that most coal ash ponds that pollute nearby groundwater or lie in unsafe areas must close within six months of contamination being detected.
Although the Edison Electric Institute document cited by the EPA draws from a 32-page report on summer electricity demand by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., that analysis does not speak to the issue of coal ash disposal.
Institute official James Roewer, who runs an industry coalition on coal ash, said in an email that the document "is not part of or a summary of a larger study; there isn't more detailed information that wasn't provided to EPA. It is simply a high-level review."
Last month, scores of people assembled in the ballroom of a Doubletree Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, to testify at a public hearing on the proposal. They represented a cross section of Americans - tribal members from Nevada and New Mexico, Girl Scouts from Illinois, a mother from Missouri, a doctor from Indiana. They described how nearby coal ash pits have affected the health of their communities and implored EPA officials not to change course.
"If anything, we should be here making the rules and regulations stronger, not weaker," said Rachael O'Reilly, 30, of Peoria, Illinois, which she said lies downstream from two coal plants. "Why are we here moving backwards?"