Malawi is in the throes of an inspiring renaissance. Famous for being the 'warm heart of Africa' and for its vast glittering lake, the country will soon be renowned as an exciting safari destination. Thanks to conservation organisation African Parks, three beautiful reserves – Majete, Liwonde and Nkhotakota – once decimated through poaching and poverty, are blossoming back to life.
African Parks: rebuilding Africa's wild spaces
African Parks was set up in 2000 by conservationists looking for a new way to restore the continent’s poorest wildlife regions. Working with local governments, it takes full management control of reserves for 25 years, aiming to make them ecologically, socially and financially sustainable.
Today, through donations from philanthropists, governments and NGOs, the South African non-profit organisation manages ten parks in seven countries: Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia. In total, African Parks protects a massive 60,000 sq km of land and its wildlife. And the organisation has had some astounding results.
In Zambia, African Parks has restored the remote Liuwa Plain National Park, which hosts Africa’s little-known, but second largest, wildebeest migration; in the process the park's population of wildebeest has trebled from a mere 15,000 to 45,000. In eastern Zambia’s beguiling Bangweulu Wetlands, it is protecting the weirdly prehistoric-looking shoebill, one of the continent’s rarest birds. In Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, where animal populations had dwindled following the country’s horrific genocide, African Parks has reintroduced thousands of animals. The rhino is next on the list, and its return will once again make the park a Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) destination.
There have, however, been challenges and tragedies along the way. In the volatile DRC, African Parks fights organised criminal gangs in military-style operations to protect elephants, with some rangers losing their lives. In Chad, six scouts were brutally murdered by poachers during morning prayers.
Majete Wildlife Reserve: an example in conservation
Poaching used to be rife across Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, and by 1992 Majete was an empty, ghostly shell. Every elephant had been killed and barely any wildlife survived, save for crocodiles, hippos and a few resilient antelope. African Parks has since transformed this reserve into a wildlife wonderland. Costing US$3 million, it relocated some 2500 animals here, including the famous Big Five.
A modern-day Noah’s Ark, Majete is now home to around 9000 animals and myriad bird species. The diverse populations live among gentle rolling hills, riverine landscapes, lush woodlands and the majestic Shire River forging its way to the Zambezi. On wildlife drives you can see grumpy buffaloes wallowing in mud, elegant eland lying in sandy riverbeds and nyala (striking antelopes with devilish faces) ducking behind bushes. On boat trips, you're more likely to see countless elephants mooching along the riverbanks. Indeed, Majete’s elephants have been so happily breeding that 250 of them will soon be relocated to Nkhotakota.
African Parks works with people as well as wildlife, helping locals benefit from conservation through education, healthcare and income-generating projects like the community-run campsite and visitor centre. Nearby, Thawale is a laid-back lodge run by African Parks, or for a little luxury, Mukumaladzi (robinpopesafaris.net) has eight chic chalets overlooking the river. Costing €1.3 million, Mukumuladzi opened in 2011, and was a massive vote of confidence in Majete’s incredible revival.
Liwonde National Park: rhinos, elephants and the Shire River
Flowing from Majete’s success, African Parks took on the management of Liwonde National Park in August 2015. There’s a wondrous beauty about Liwonde, with dappled miombo woodlands, fever-tree forests, baobab and palm trees, and huge candelabra euphorbia scattered across the landscape. But the Shire River is the star of the show here, cutting a swathe through golden floodplains.
On boat safaris, you'll see what this park is all about. Expect to pass scores of hippos and crocs lingering just a couple of metres from elephants drinking on the riverbank, with the only sound breaking the silence being the big beasts' slurping and gurgling. On the plains, hundreds of waterbucks and impala graze quietly and warthogs trot around. And the birdlife is mesmerising too, from tiny multi-coloured malachite kingfishers and gigantic goliath herons to elegant African skimmers flying in formation over the water.
Liwonde’s sanctuary, a fenced area within the park, is home to buffalo, zebra, sable and rare black rhino. Unusually, visitors can track rhino with researchers, learning all about their plight and conservation.
Living alongside wildlife isn’t easy – elephants kill and devour crops – and this small park spanning 548 sq km is surrounded by people. Until recently, poaching and human wildlife conflict were rife in Liwonde. Helping protect both people and wildlife, African Parks is fencing the entire park, and in the biggest translocation of elephants in Africa’s history, is moving 250 of the park's 800 elephants to Nkhotakota. The charming Mvuu Lodge and nearby camp offer fascinating village and school visits that reveal glimpses of local life.
Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve: a time to shine
Exciting times lie ahead for Nkhotakota. After years of neglect that saw its wildlife populations plummet, this also became an African Parks reserve in August 2015. Since then, AP has worked closely with local communities (some 300,000 people live around this area) helping them to have a better life beyond poaching. Many have handed in their weapons in exchange for jobs in the park, and snares, traps and guns have been recovered.
African Parks has created a new 170 sq km sanctuary within the 1800 sq km reserve, which is now starting to welcome those 500 new elephants from Liwonde and Majete. Hundreds of other animals including sable, waterbuck, kudu and impala will also be joining them. The 80 resident elephants can often be seen from the terraces of the luxury and very lovely Tongole Wilderness Lodge (tongole.com) that overlooks the river. A one-eyed vervet monkey is a regular visitor too, along with baboons and other monkeys.
Their home is a truly wild place, hilly and rugged and draped in verdant miombo forests with the Bua River swelling and shrinking as the seasons change. Even without the wildlife it was special here, perfect for adventurous souls to explore by canoe or on foot. If you decide against tackling the highest peak, Chipata, you can opt for Mount Kasukusuka instead, a more gentle climb. You might have to carefully avoid a green mamba lying on your path, but you are sure to be rewarded with views of Nkhotakota spanning right across the horizon.
Historically, few visitors make it to NKhotakota, preferring the better-known reserves of Liwonde and Majete. But as African Parks transforms Malawi’s wildlife destinations, this is at last Nkhotakota’s time to shine.
Sue Watt travelled to Malawi with support from African Parks (african-parks.org; 500elephants.org), Expert Africa (expertafrica.com) and Malawi Tourism (malawitourism.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.