Why were British soldiers deployed to train rangers in the Majete Wildlife Reserve, Malawi?

The Majete Wildlife Reserve in southern Malawi was set up as a protected area in 1955. Since 2003, the 70,000 hectare has been managed by African Parks, a South African non-profit conservation organisation that runs 15 national parks and protected areas in nine countries. In total, African Parks’ operations cover a total of 10.5 million hectares in Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Zambia.

In a promotional video for African Parks, Peter Fearnhead, the company’s CEO, explains that,

African Parks is unique in that we take on the direct responsibility for the long-term management of national parks. We are the boots on the ground. We engage with local communities who are key partners. We have a business approach to conservation, which means that we are directly responsible for the production of results. This is a moral imperative….

If we can ensure that a portfolio of parks, hopefully a significant portfolio of parks is handed over intact and functioning to the next generation of conservation leaders, then I think that we have fulfilled our responsibility.

Fortress conservation

African Parks’ conservation model is that of fortress conservation. On its website, African Parks states that it has the “largest counter-poaching force of any one NGO across Africa”.

Leo Lamprecht is African Parks’ manager of the Zakouma National Park in Chad. In an interview with Radio 4, he says that the rangers do law enforcement, not military operations:

We have rangers, due to the threat that they face they are military trained. They are ultimately doing law enforcement and not military operations. We are trying to stop poachers before they kill the assets that we protect.

The promotional video includes several posed shots of African Parks’ rangers. They certainly look a lot like military units:

British soldiers deployed to Majete

In May 2018, British soldiers were deployed in two parks Malawi, to train rangers in Nkhotakota and Majete Wildlife Reserves, both run by African Parks.

Last week, BBC Newsnight reported from Majete Wildlife Reserve, and has uploaded the 20 minute documentary to YouTube:

Craig Hay, African Parks’ manager of Majete told the BBC that,

In Majete in particular, the poaching is low and on a sustainable level. In Majete, we haven’t lost a rhino, elephant to poaching since African [Parks] started managing Majete in partnership with the Malawi government. Prior days, there was still a lot of illegal activities, and availability of firearms in Mozambique. The threats may come from the west, and we deploy our rangers strategically around the reserve randomly so there’s no predictable cycles.

In March 2003, when African Parks entered into its 25-year agreement with the Malawi Department of National Parks and Wildlife to manage Majete, there were no elephants, lions or rhinos in the wildlife reserve. All that remained were a few antelope.

Andrew Parker, Director of Conservation Development at African Parks, told the BBC in 2016 that when African Parks took over,

“The community was ravaging the protected land for firewood, and the animals had been almost completely poached out.”

In the three years before African Parks came to Majete there were hardly any tourists. African Parks reintroduced almost 2,900 animals, including rhinos in 2003, elephants in 2006, and leopards in 2012. Also in 2012, four lions were brought from South Africa – one died on the journey. The total cost of relocating animals was almost US$3 million.

African Parks has built a 142-kilometre fence around the perimeter of Majete – keeping the animals in, and people out, unless they pay to come in.

In 2017, 9,000 tourists paid to visit the reserve, half of them from Malawi. But you wouldn’t know that from the companies advertising safaris in Majete. Here’s a small sample:

Mordecai Ogada’s challenge to find any advertising brochure advertising safaris to Kenya showing black people as clients could be extended to Malawi.

According to African Parks’ latest Annual Report, tourists handed over more than US$550,000 in 2017.

Since 2003, the number of rangers has increased from 12 to 140. In total, African Parks employs about 200 people at Majete. But there are about 130,000 people living in 19 communities around the reserve.

Patricio Ndadzea, the Country Director of African Parks Malawi, told BBC Newsnight that,

“People were relocated from the park, so that drew a bit of controversy, and people were unhappy that they left the land of their ancestors.”

BBC Newsnight also interviewed Francis Masse, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield. Masse works with the BIOSEC project, which looks at the relationship between biodiversity conservation and security.

Here’s Masse’s contribution to the documentary:

“The situation is very serious. Are we losing the fight, not losing the fight? I think that it’s hard to say. What do we base that on?

I think that one thing we do need to think about is that it’s not simply about how many numbers of elephants or rhinos are being lost, or how many poachers are being caught and arrested, but the broader picture of what this poaching conflict means for conservation in these areas, both in an ecological and a social sense.

“I think training and capacity building, building the skills of rangers is a great thing. I’m quite skeptical of the use of the military in training rangers, especially the use of a foreign military, that doesn’t necessarily know the context in which they’re operating, and that is not trained in conservation.

“I have a real concern that the future of conservation in Africa is going to not take a step back to that hard fortress conservation model but it’s going to bring that model forward and intensify it.

“And we can be asking, ‘Does the British military have the background and the skills itself to train rangers beyond that hardline anti-poaching?'”

An Army spokesperson told BBC Newsnight that,

“The British Army is proud to be part of the UK’s efforts to stamp out the illegal wildlife trade in countries like Malawi.

“Criminal poaching not only impacts some of the world’s most endangered species, but also damages communities and fuels corruption and crime. By working closely with our partners, we are helping local people to benefit from living alongside these beautiful animals, and are helping preserve them for generations to come.”

But exactly why British soldiers were deployed in a wildlife reserve that hasn’t lost a single elephant or rhino in 15 years is not at all obvious.

Coincidentally, in December 2017 Prince Harry became the president of African Parks.

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