News 2007


November - December 2007:

In the beginning of December we enjoyed the first serious rains in Thuma F.R. and Dedza-Salima F.R. Dark skies contrast sharply with the exploding bright colors of the reviving vegetation. In the coming weeks the rain will turn the dry stream beds again into the familiar flowing silver lines which meander around the hills and mountains through the reserves and the animals will disperse, no longer being confined to the few places where water was still to be found. The months of plenty have arrived again, giving all wildlife the annual kick start for the new year.

And looking back, 2007 was again a successful year. Despite the normal unavoidable smaller setbacks and 'struggles' here and there, we have managed, with the support of many, to take a series of important steps forward: many of them mentioned in the paragraphs below.


We would therefore like to take this opportunity to thank everybody for the interest you have shown this year for our work and we hope that you will keep on supporting our and all other conservation efforts in Malawi. Two words: Zikomo kwambiri ("Thank you very much")!


October
2007:

With the final approval from the Department of Forestry to start our new conservation project in Dedza-Salima Forest Reserve (see Dedza-Salima Project), we have started this month with the constructing of a base camp in the reserve. As much work as possible, which includes the collection of building materials and road construction (see picture) is handed out to the villagers in the area, thereby generating an important direct inflow of conservation related income towards the local communities. With the massive response from the communities on our request for labour, we most likely will be able to finish most of the work before the first rains and at the same time it will enable the villagers to purchase the so much required fertilizer with the money they earn.


September
2007:

The Mammal Survey 2007 (see June news) is going with full speed. Both scouts and volunteers are doing an excellent job, despite daytime temperatures of up to 35░C in the shadow (the vervet monkeys, however, take a more relaxing approach these days: see picture) We expect to finish the survey in November but, so far, the preliminary findings look very interesting and promising. Later more.

An interesting new website (www.safaritalk.net), covering conservation projects and issues in Africa, has put a feature about W.A.G.'s work on their website. Check it out!


July - August 2007:

These months we received excellent news from the funding side: the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov) who has been funding our conservation work in Thuma F.R. in the last 12 months, has approved our request for another year of funding. In one word: fantastic! This means that we can continue to maintain the high level of protection we have been able to achieve in the last year. And the results of this are showing. 


An example is the number of snares we have found and removed in the last years (see graph). 
As can be seen on the graph, the number of snares put out throughout the year (and therefore found and removed by us) follows a certain pattern with a distinctive peak in the months April - August. 

Taking a closer look at the period January - August (to make it possible to include the 2007 data in this comparison) the numbers of removed snares for each year are:

January - August 2004: 266
January - August 2005: 284
January - August 2006: 356
January - August 2007: 122

It is obvious that with the increased number of employed scouts in 2006 more snares were collected in 2006 than in the two previous years. That was a good start.

And by removing so many snares in 2006, it appears that this year much less people are interested in putting out snares in Thuma F.R. because they have apparently experienced last year that the chance of the snares being removed by the scouts has increased significantly. The result so far is therefore that we only had to remove 122 snares this year. An excellent development which will undoubtedly have the positive effect on wildlife numbers we are looking for.


June
2007:

This month we have started with the Mammal Survey 2007. The volunteers Frodo Wesseling from the Netherlands and MaitÚ Guignard from Switzerland have joined our team in Thuma F.R. this month to assist with the survey and several other volunteers will follow in the coming months. The planning is to survey as many of the 208 square kilometer blocks of Thuma F.R. as possible and record the signs (meaning presence) of the different mammal species.

Last year we did the first mammal survey in Thuma F.R. which produced very interesting data (see Thuma F.R. Mammal Survey 2006). By repeating the survey this year, we are hoping, besides recording the presence of the different mammal species in the different parts of Thuma F.R., also to record any possible changes in distribution patterns in comparison to last year. Any change in these patterns might give us a valuable indication of the effects of our conservation efforts in Thuma F.R..

Though poaching levels have dropped significantly in Thuma F.R. in the last years, total protection of the elephant population in the forest reserves in this part of Malawi has not been achieved yet. At the end of this month, scouts Matthews and Edison found the remains of an elephant at a distance of about twenty minutes walking from our Base Camp. The estimated 40 to 50 year old bull died about 2 to 3 months ago. Investigation revealed that the bull has very likely been killed by poachers: the molars of the animal were in good condition, excluding old age as the cause of death, it had a full stomach, most likely excluding disease as the cause of death, and the animal was found on the slope of a hill, suggesting that it more or less literally dropped dead on the spot (on contrast, elephants which feel their end is coming because of old age or disease, often retreat to thick bush near water).

However, the tusks were still on the animal. Besides that, we haven't heard any gunshots in Thuma F.R. for about a year now and if the animal would have been shot near the spot where we found it, we would for certain have heard it in camp. Though speculative, a likely scenario therefore seems that the animal was shot by poachers in the adjacent Dedza-Salima Forest Reserve (or along its boundaries), where poaching is rampant, and that the animal managed to 'escape' to Thuma F.R. where it eventually died. Apparently, the poachers hadn't dared to track and follow the mortally wounded bull into Thuma F.R. which explains the presence of the tusks.

All by all an unfortunate happening. This incident expresses the need and urgency for W.A.G. to expand its work to Dedza-Salima Forest Reserve as soon as sufficient funding is available.

The tusks, each weighing 14.5 kg (see picture), were recovered by us and handed over to the director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife who expressed his gratitude, and especially his appreciation for the honesty of the scouts who had reported the discovery of the dead animal.


May 2007:

We would like to ask your attention for a fantastic and tremendous useful initiative initiated by W.A.G. Support (our membership support organization in Europe): The Bushtaxi; a new car for Thuma F.R.

Despite the fact that a vehicle is a quite expensive budget 'burden', it is however an absolutely necessity for our work in Thuma F.R..

The Toyota Land Cruiser, we are using now, is running on its last legs (tires): it has endured severe bush conditions for over 10 years now, repairs and maintenance costs are rising and a sudden breakdown of the car could result in serious problems or even incidents.

Therefore, the time has come to start thinking about the replacement of our old car, because without a car, W.A.G. would for example not be able to:

  • hand over any arrested poachers to the police in Salima (about 40 km away from our base camp),

  • assist communities in sudden cases of crop raiding elephants, especially at night,

  • run the volunteer programme since none of them could be transferred from/to the airport, and no supplies, also for W.A.G. staff, could be transported to W.A.G.'s base camp in Thuma F.R.,

  • the safety of W.A.G. staff and visitors would be at serious risk since the nearest (proper) hospital is at a distance of about 2 hours driving (in Lilongwe),

  • attend the necessary meetings, update W.A.G.'s website, check (e-)mail etc.

Needless to say, a vehicle is therefore not so much a luxurious item but a logistic necessity; without a vehicle the direct consequence would be a rapid collapse of the operational work of W.A.G. in Thuma F.R..

Fortunately W.A.G. Support has picked up this issue. Kristina R÷sel (Chair of W.A.G. Support), Nicole Straube and Michael Hesse (2 members of W.A.G. Support) are organising a new car for Thuma F.R.: a Toyota Land Cruiser (see picture).

The car has already been purchased and in October this year the car will be transferred on its own axis by Michael and one or two more volunteers via Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania to Malawi; final destination Thuma F.R.!

For more information about this very important initiative: see the website of W.A.G. Support Europe.


April 2007:

Problems with crop-raiding elephants reach(ed) their peak during the past and coming few weeks.
Despite the fact that food is most abundant in Thuma F.R. these days, the lure of ripening maize, pumpkins and groundnuts on the farmers fields is difficult to resist by elephants: it is easy accessible, conveniently planted on small areas (gardens) in high density and most important ... it simply just tastes great! With a boundary bordering villages and farm fields of about 50 kilometers, W.A.G. staff is not able to assist farmers all the time everywhere around Thuma F.R. during these weeks. The same applies for staff from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife who even have to assist communities around all forest and wildlife reserves in Malawi where wildlife is helping itself in these free 'restaurants'.

One option would be handing out fire crackers to farmers. Good fire crackers definitely scare off crop raiding elephants (and other crop raiding wildlife like bushpigs) and are at the same time much cheaper than sending scouts or game rangers to areas too big to control. At the same time handing out crackers to farmers would be more efficient since the crackers are there where they are needed at the moment they are needed (it is often rather difficult to predict when and where the elephants go out).

However reality learns that free hand-outs (of anything) is often not a sustainable way to solve a problem. Therefore, inspired by Malawi government's subsidized fertilizer program, we have started this year with providing farmers on the East side of Thuma F.R. with subsidized fire crackers. Farmers can purchase fire crackers from W.A.G. for 10 Malawi Kwacha (5 Euro cents) each, the other 60% of the purchase price is paid by W.A.G.. In this way fire crackers become just a part of the input required for farming, the same like land, labor, tools, seeds, fertilizer and pesticides, and therefore every farmer can take the protection of his crops for a large(r) part in his (or her, of course) own hands.

So far the subsidized crackers seem to contribute positively to the reduction of damage caused by crop raiding elephants. In the future, the idea needs to be studied and developed further and I think it will be wise to give the farmers first a short training next year in how and when to use the crackers to avoid the potential risk that the wrong or unnecessary and excessive use of fire crackers might lead to the elephants becoming insensitive to loud bangs in and around the gardens.

For the second year in a row, Malawi government has provided farmers with subsidized fertilizer which is sold to farmers for about one third of the market price. This, together with the prolonged periods of rainfall, has resulted in two bumper harvests of maize in the last two years with an amazing surplus of 1 million tons of maize this year.


March
2007:

In the second half of the month, the heavy rains have come to an end and in the coming weeks the last light showers will be the last farewell of this rainy season. Despite all the rains, the scouts have spent well over 200 days in the bush in the last month. With so many days in the field (not only this month but in the last year) and with the law enforcement support of the game rangers from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, poachers have started to avoid Thuma F.R.. Though spotting wildlife this time of year is difficult due to the thick bush, the direct positive effect on the wildlife populations will without doubt become evident the coming dry season when game spotting opportunities will be better than ever before: something to look forward to!

And on the last day of the month, we have held the first conservation awareness day in the village Chilombo. Drama, poems, songs, a quiz and discussions were on the program. Especially the drama was of remarkable quality and fun: see the picture below. For sure a day that will be organized more often in the coming months.


The 'chief' (middle) making it clear to 3 'poachers' that chopping down trees 
without planting new ones, is not tolerated in his village.

February 2007:

Food for thought:

Bushpigs, baboons and elephants know that there is a lot of nice food to be found in the villages this time of the year: fields full of maize, groundnuts, cassava and bananas work as a magnet on wildlife and the villagers are out on fulltime watch to scare off any intruder from the bush. In the case of persistent crop raiding elephants, W.A.G. is assisting the people by sending a scout with fire crackers to the village to chase away the elephants. Generally this works well though this year we are experiencing a human-wildlife problem of a new category.  

Halfway last month one of the biggest bull elephants of Thuma crossed the Lilongwe River, which forms the Northern boundary of Thuma, in search for a different kind of food in Chilombo village. During his night out however, heavy rains in the water catchment area of the Lilongwe River, made the river swell to immense proportions, making it impossible for the bull to return to Thuma in the following early morning. Soon the people from Chilombo came to us to complain about the elephant which was causing continues serious crop damage while being stuck in Chilombo. Immediately we positioned a scout, assisted by 2 game rangers from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, in Chilombo whose duty was to keep the elephant away from the people's crops (and to keep the people away from the elephant) in order to reduce the chance of any serious human-elephant conflict.

However, time was against us: after 3 weeks the bull was still not able to cross the river because of continuous heavy rainfall and it became clear that the elephant was not able to find enough food (other then maize or other crops) to sustain itself for any prolonged period of time. The day was approaching that it would not be possible anymore to keep the bull, which was getting more and more hungry, away from the gardens of the people whose life directly depends on the amount of maize they can grow each year.

This situation raised an interesting but very unpleasant moral issue: conservation is about wildlife Ónd people and the overall goal in conservation is to create a situation where people and wildlife can co-exist and benefit from each other. But there are situations where you, as a conservationist, might be forced to make a tough choice. I mean: how much damage is a crop raiding elephant allowed to cause before it has to be shot ...? Note: Malawi government does not pay compensation for crop damage caused by wildlife.

Fortunately, a few rare days with no rain, made the water level in Lilongwe River drop to the low level which made it possible for the bull to return to Thuma again. All ended well for the elephant though it was a close call.

Sielke Steelant from Belgium has come to Thuma to make an inventory of the butterflies living in Thuma. Her 3 months stay is a part of the final year of her study Nature Management.
At the same time, Jan Verachtert, who did his internship in Thuma last year, has returned to Thuma this month, this time as a graduate, and he will continue his research on the orchid species in Thuma.
The butterfly Pretoria Red Lines (Cyana pretoriae).


January 2007:

Rain, rain, rain and rain...