The story of Malawi's incredible wildlife safari revival, an interview with Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks
02 Jul 2020
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African Parks in Malawi
African Parks (AP) is a non-profit conservation organisation, renowned for taking on total responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks and protected areas across Africa. Their approach is to work in partnership with governments and local communities, supporting an ethos of making wildlife parks ecologically, socially and economically viable in the long-term. Local communities particularly benefit from this, contributing to their sustainable development in the face of competing forms of land use.
AP currently manages 13.5 million hectares, an area larger than Germany, comprised of 17 wildlife areas in 11 African countries, including Angola, Benin, CAR, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Four of these protected areas are located in Malawi - Majete Wildlife Reserve, Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, Liwonde National Park and Mangochi Forest Reserve.
I caught up with Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks, to get a deeper insight into the exciting and ongoing wildlife conservation journey for Malawi:
What first drew African Parks to Malawi as a country to become involved with?
When we set out, African Parks was little more than a concept backed by our conviction that we could make it work. The question was where to test it – who was going to risk committing a national conservation asset to an organisation which had no track record. All we had to go on was our individual professional reputations and relationships built up over the years.
Dr Anthony Hall-Martin was very well known to the Malawi Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and had a reputation as the continent’s leading elephant and rhino specialist. Over many years he had supported the Department, including helping to re-establish a founder population of black rhino in Liwonde National Park. This relationship of trust opened the door and discussions began. Initially our focus was on Liwonde National Park, arguably Malawi’s premier protected area, as we believed this would be relatively quick to get right. However, the concept attracted much scepticism and professional advisors to the Department strongly advised DNPW against it. Eventually, Mr Leonard Sefu, the Director in the Department, said that he could not risk trialling the concept in Liwonde, but would consider Majete Wildlife Reserve, which was so depleted that it had been written off and so there was little risk of failure. It was a tough decision – Majete would require much more funding and much more time to rehabilitate, yet it was our break. We agreed to do it.
African Parks is now managing four areas in Malawi. What most excites you about each of these reserves?
Individually, each of the protected areas has its own special character. For me, Majete shall always be a symbol of what is possible, regardless of the beginning point. Every animal is a result of a deliberate effort to restore the park, a process of bringing in more than 3,200 animals of 16 different species; every visitor is someone that is contributing to the park’s sustainability and to the economy of the country; every employee is someone that is both contributing to and benefitting from this journey. It is a joy to see.
Liwonde and Mangochi are simply spectacular – some of the most scenically attractive unspoilt habitats on the continent, teeming with wildlife, especially on the Shire floodplain. Nkhotakota is a rugged and wild landscape, which has a scale dimension to it that gives it a wonderful sense of place. All four have the most magnificent woodlands. However, it is together that they make such a diverse and rewarding experience for anyone visiting Malawi; a country that is finding its place among the continent’s most extraordinary destinations.
Through their rehabilitation, these parks are now also serving important regional conservation objectives for key species, helping to re-establish and protect significant populations of wildlife. Spanning 3,477km2 in total footprint, they harbour 90% of Malawi’s elephant, all its rhino, and recently reintroduced cheetah and lion. As a result, we are now even seeing the return of threatened vultures; up to six different species, including the East African Ruppell’s, to Liwonde for the first time in decades.
African Parks took on the management of Majete in 2003 and later Liwonde and Nkhotakota in 2015. There have been many exciting developments during that time. Which for you have stood out or been the most exciting?
That is tough, as it is genuinely the journey that is so rewarding. The signing of the agreements marks the beginnings of each of these journeys and so stand out. The large translocations required to restock the parks, involving almost 4,000 animals since 2003; the massive exercise of darting and moving hundreds of elephant; or the release of apex predators into a park, which symbolises a level of ecological maturity, are all particular moments that I will never forget.
One particularly poignant moment was reading the report from “Happy Readers” – a partner organisation that was trialling a literacy program at Namalasa School, which we had recently helped build. The child literacy was just 6%, but after 6 months literacy had improved to 60% - this was not our result, but our projects had enabled it to happen. It is moments like these that remind us of the potential of these parks to add value to people’s lives, which is vital for their sustainability and core to our model. It is especially encouraging to see these magnificent landscapes being increasingly appreciated, not just by our visitors from offshore, but by local Malawian residents, who last year made up almost 80% of Majete’s tourism. For a park that received not one tourist, nor a single dollar, between 2000 and 2003 and contributed little in the way of employment, this is a hopeful signal of sustainability.
If we were to catch up again in 5 years, what do you think would be the biggest changes for wildlife conservation and the safari experience for visitors to Malawi that we would be talking about?
The job of a conservation organisation, like African Parks, is making sure that these spectacular wild areas, Malawi’s natural heritage, are preserved into the future. Therefore, in a sense, no change is a symbol of success. Malawi has been a leader in ensuring the restoration and proper management of its protected areas – it recognised its limitations, in terms of resources and skills needed for park management, and rather than lamenting these shortages, it set about putting alternative solutions in place. Five years from now, it is my hope that Malawi has continued on this trajectory and put in place solutions for all its critical conservation areas, which provide a richer set of experiences for all visitors, both local and international.
You’ve visited Malawi many times now. What is it about this destination that you feel makes it so special for visitors?
It is Malawians that make Malawi so special. Of course it is difficult to communicate this characteristic to potential travellers in the form of a photograph, so instead the spectacular images of the Shire River full of hippo, incredible birdlife, and the lions and elephants of Majete find their way into travel brochures. But, there is a reason that Malawi is called “the warm heart of Africa” – this reflects the nature of the people that live in this country and their warm, friendly and engaging nature.
Peter Fearnhead, CEO, African Parks
Peter Fearnhead is the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of African Parks. He has been involved in formal conservation since the age of 13, where in his native Zimbabwe he developed a 2,000-acre wildlife reserve on the school campus. He graduated with a BSc in Agricultural Economics from the University of Natal and an MSc in Agriculture and Resource Economics from the University of Oxford. His professional career started as a management consultant with Deloitte specialising in strategy, before joining South African National Parks (SANParks), where he held a number of positions, including Resource Economist, Advisor to the CEO, and then Head of Commercial Development.
Peter has been at the forefront of innovations in conservation for over twenty-five years, particularly where this has involved crowding-in the commercial sector as a conservation strategy. Among other initiatives, Peter conceptualised and implemented the commercialization program at SANParks, turning the organisation around from near bankruptcy; established a mechanism whereby the South African Government funded land acquisition to expand parks; concluded multiple contract-park agreements, which expanded the national conservation footprint; formulated the conservation organisation African Parks; and established the African Parks Endowment Fund.