Every setting sun takes with it wild animals and forest reserves persecuted during the day, leaving shadows of regrets where, once, strong roots held rain water at bay.
As Malawi's natural resources get slowly wiped out, it vindicates perceptions that long-gone are the days when wildlife and natural resources meant little more than nobody’s property. Today, everything- ranging from trees , game, to wild-products- is nobody's property, meaning that they are meant to be plundered,m a familiar sign of that long-held prejudice that there is nothing ‘human’ about being in the wild.
But this might have been the case before the missionaries brought the Bible and Koran to Africa because things changed as evidenced by the introduction of fences around national parks, game reserves and nature sanctuaries; and communities felt they were meant to deter them from accessing their own endowment, a part of their inheritance.
Today, people from the area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Ng’ambi in Machinga, the abode district of Liwonde National Park, are leading the way in conserving natural resources. All because they have chosen to believe otherwise now, and have quickly adapted to the reassuring reality that wild life is for us and posterity; that the fences are meant to contain problem-animals from wrecking havoc among human beings and not otherwise.
New thoughts are beginning to emerge, too, with some of the community members like Michael Jalasi now beginning to believe that, perhaps, in the early 1900s our ancestors might have been rattled by current events and the unbeatable logic of despair among wild animals and had to go out in the woods for a while and think about the consequences of depleting natural resources faster than they could be replaced.
For 74 year old Ali Zalimu, there never, at first, was a story told to his children without mentioning wildlife- it was either about the cunningness of Kalulu the hair, the unscrupulous behaviour of nocturnal fisi (hyena), the courage of the chameleon as to win a long-distance marathon against the likes of mighty Cheetah and Lion, and the beauty of the countryside.
But he recalls that, as early as the 1980s, he began to tell stories that begun with the end, a sure sign of dreadful fascination with doom and demise, his faith in imminent extinction of the once beautiful wildlife getting stronger by the day.
Zalimu is one of the people who, once or twice a year, flocks into the National Park to harvest mushrooms as his wife, Miriam, collects firewood.
“We are always happy to come into the (National) park and get firewood that keeps us going for three weeks or a month on end- something we do periodically when wildlife officials see it fit,” he says.
His once lost his best friend (Ali Itimu) to a marauding lion when he (the friend) went poaching on May 17, 1991.
“But things have significantly changed today that there are very few cases of poaching and abuse of resources in protected areas; communities surrounding these areas are increasingly becoming aware that the fences are not meant to deter us from visiting these places. They are for problem animals that wreck havoc in neighbouring villages from getting out of the protected areas,” attests Alick Prescott Makanjira, senior assistant Parks and Wildlife Officer in the Department of Parks and Wildlife, South. The department is now divided into four: administration, research, wild life management and wildlife education and extension.
It hasn’t been easy, though, as he observes. Some villagers have a negative attitude that hinges mainly on memories of domestic animals that might have been killed by the problem animals- these are hyenas, elephants, lions and other predators.
“We have also come around this problem through Collaborative Wildlife Management. Through this initiative, natural resources are managed alongside villagers around Majete Wildlife Reserve, Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve, Lengwe National Park and Michiru Nature Sanctuary. These areas fall within the four divisions,” says Makanjira.
That is why, for instance, the Nyika/Vwaza project helped national park officials to work together with community members. Schools built for these communities still stand today, tidy and strong- a living manifestation of how deep unity of purpose can dig.
For people around Michiru Nature Sanctuary, this sort of unity has a shape and taste. It comes in the form of a mushroom, which they are allowed to harvest after maturity. The taste is thus that of mushroom. Officials say this has been of tremendous benefits, as people no longer cut trees (live wood), waiting to harvest dead wood at the right time.
As they wait for the right time, another right time comes: The time between waiting and hoping happens to be the same grass for thatching houses matures- so they get an occasional reward of thatched grass.
“This reward doesn’t come from parks, game reserves or nature sanctuary officials; it comes from nature itself, every year- we just orchestrate accessibility to these resources at the right time,” he said.
A question of a little late, but not too late. Malawi used to have that fastest running animal in the world, the Cheetah, in Kasungu National Park. No more.
Wild dogs (mimbulu); no more.
Malawi has started to sing funeral hymns for wild game that once was, and is not.
It pains the likes of Makanjira that, while Malawi can only lay claim to the fact that we once had such great animals of the wild through the fossils dug from the ground- animals that once were part of the warm-heartedness that is us- go to Zambia, and you will get them.
Yet, Zambians and Malawians call themselves brothers and sisters; their father and mother being that border line in Mchinji.
While this should have been a wake up call, some community members see no doom and gloom in this but continue to undo the prospects of their own posterity.
Though positive strides have been made to curve around the problem of abuse of natural resources, the risk remains for indigenous trees , says Daulosi Mauambeta, Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (Wesm) executive director.
This abuse has a name, and a tag: Charcoal trade. Mauambeta finds it shocking that this form of trade has a well established cost structure, but no action is taken to control it as one way of promoting sustainable management of natural resources. With his finger, he points to Lilongwe. Retailers there enjoy 33 per cent of the production costs, private taxes eat 12 per cent, market fees 3 per cent, transport 25 per cent, labour 6 per cent and the producer gets 41 per cent from the sales.
Blantyre’s charcoal sales’ cost structure reads like: The retailer (the last seller, who packs charcoal in small plastic bags) gets 24 per cent, private taxes ‘eat’ 20 per cent, market fee claims 3 per cent, transport 20 per cent and producers take 33 per cent to themselves.
In both cases, the producer- who is often the destroyer of trees- gets the large chunk of money.
“Buying charcoal means encouraging such people,” said Mauambeta.
Blantyre District Forestry Officer, Geoffrey Kanyelele, agrees, but offers remedies. People in cities are encouraging this sort of behaviour by buying these products.
But because electricity tariffs are so high for the average citizen, because only 6 per cent of the country’s population is connected to electricity and the rest of the population stays in darkness, these people must grow trees as well.
Kanyelele says most people in urban areas shun away from planting trees. The reason, he adds, is that some people simply never want to do something- like planting a tree- no, they fear that that will benefit someone else!
“That spirit is killing our forests. However, my office is happy that, in Blantyre, for instance, people come to realize the importance of replacing trees. It doesn’t matter whether a tree has been felled in Mwanza or Neno, you can plant one (tree) wherever you are. Surely, that tree will have an impact,” he said.
The reason, perhaps, is that Blantyre residents have already planted over 2 million trees half way though the Tree Planting season. He is so sure that by April 15, official closing date for the exercise, which started on December 15 and was officially opened by president Bingu wa Mutharika, things will work out- beyond expectations.
“We are coming closer to natural resources again, in terms of tree planting. Soon, this problem will be behind us. That will happen if we all become part of the solution,” said Kanyelele.