Forestry department is calling interested partners to adopt reserves to manage them. Wildlife Action Group (WAG) is a local non – governmental organization that has managed Thuma since 2002 and Dedza – Salima escarpment since 2007. It is such initiatives that are in-line with Afr100 which seeks to restore landscape across the continent. CHARLES MKOKA caught up with MOSES KEPHAR, WAG’s Extension Manager, who education was sponsored by WAG up to tertiary level and who now works full time to help protect the forest and assist communities where he grew up.
What does your work as extension coordinator involve?
Working as an Extension Coordinator, involves engagement, sensitization, training and empowering communities surrounding protected areas such as national parks and forest reserves within different societies in the country. Extension is that art of introducing and implementing programs or projects the communities themselves want, that will help them to get their needs and be able to understand the value and importance of taking part in conserving, which ultimately will protect and preserve natural resources in their localities. It also involves the use of sustainable initiatives aimed at reducing their dependence on natural resources including any illegal activities that contravene the law.
How was the situation before WAG implemented extension programmes as part of support to surrounding communities?
Malawi has lost over half of its forest cover in just 40 years. However, as you know everyone on earth depends on forests resources for our very survival, from the air we breathe to the wood we use. Besides providing habitats for animal species and livelihoods for humans, forests also offer both catchment and watershed protection, prevent soil erosion and mitigate climate change, we MUST protect these forests. Over the last few years, we are very proud to see Malawi becoming a star in fighting forest and wildlife crimes as reflected on laws on conservation of natural resources.
The forests we protect like every protected area in Malawi has seen unprecedented illegal activity over the years. In fact, the wildlife population was almost wiped out here and the forest in certain areas completely destroyed by charcoal burning. At one stage everyone said there was no hope for these forests. However, WAG worked tirelessly to try contain the destruction of the habitat which is directly linked to people's health and killing of wildlife, which are Malawi's heritage and important forex revenue. WAG's strategy has been to address the conservation needs, by working on several levels. These include strong law enforcement, engagement of traditional leaders and communities’ awareness of revised laws at village level, tackling human elephant conflict by erecting solar powered electric fences along boundaries. All these efforts ensure food and personal security is guaranteed, creation of jobs for local people. Currently, we employ over 100 local staff and community development. The community development started once we saw a reduction in the illegal activity. We have been introducing community projects which has in most areas replaced hunting and charcoal burning and at the same time gave alternative income generating possibilities. We are seeing incredible results on the ground including regeneration of over 8,000 hectares of Miombo woodlands regenerating and wildlife populations increasing naturally.
What programmes are you currently implementing at community level at the moments and in which areas?
WAG is currently working in four districts namely; Dedza, Dowa, Lilongwe and Salima. In all these areas we have implemented the following projects; small scale irrigation, poultry, beekeeping, goats and tree planting. For instance, WAG has over 100 clubs with over 1,500 direct beneficiaries who are involved with bee-keeping, small scale irrigation gardens, home gardens, poultry clubs, pass on goat clubs and 46 villages have been involved in planting over 20,000 trees in the Lilongwe district alone. Early last year at the start of Covid-19 pandemic, WAG supplied close to 6,000 masks to surrounding schools and chiefs. All the communities’ projects also received covid care packages to use to fight the pandemic.
As part of sustainability, WAG support all projects through training, and supplying inputs to set up the projects. The training helps to expand their knowledge and skills level in handling the initiatives. WAG support each of these clubs for a period of up to five years, the assumption is that by that period, our beneficiaries are self – reliant and can do everything on their own. WAG empower communities with skills such as nursery preperation, mulching, transplanting, preparing compost manure, preparing and using local pesticides to contain pests, vaccination and husbandry of livestock and bee-keeping management which is producing natural pure honey. Other programs include supporting schools surrounding the protected area with classroom blocks construction, refurbishment of teachers houses, painting class rooms, making cement table and chairs for students to sit while they learn. We also provide learning and teaching materials to teachers and deliver environmental education to develop responsible citizens on wildlife conservation and protection in future. So far, since 2019 we have sunk five boreholes to supply clean safe water to communities most in need.
What has been the community’s response to wildlife conservation following these programmes aimed at improving peripheral welfare?
I have noticed that there are huge positive responses from communities over the years. This can be measured through the drastic decreases in the number of illegal activities, regeneration of the forest and increases in the wildlife population. Thuma now boasts zero charcoal burning inside the protected area, and zero elephant poaching for over 3 years. Communities also have opportunities via the regulated sharing of natural resources through bamboo harvesting and seasonal cutting of grasses inside the reserves. Communities now actually take active roles in reporting illegal activities and are helping to protect their natural heritage. Our relationship with communities is blossoming into very strong bonds with a brighter future. Of course, there is still lots to be done, but Rome was not built in a day.
How has the solar fence been received among the community to curb human wildlife conflicts in the area covered?
I have seen that communities have warmly welcomed the solar powered fence. In fact, it is the communities themselves who manage the daily workings of the fence. They are the ones who ensure it is working to stop wildlife leaving the reserve. Community fence attendants have been employed and trained to fix and maintain the fence. We have not seen communities destroy or steal the fence equipment. Fence has assisted to mitigate human wildlife conflicts and increase food security. Of course, we still have more areas to fence and we are doing everything to source funds to continue construction where the fence has not covered. Any challenges that you are facing in the course of your duties?
I have no problems in the course of executing my duties. The only challenge is that I was affected by Covid - 19 Pandemic which has affected the whole world economically and socially.
What is your last word ? I have seen that involving communities in wildlife conservation is very important criteria to ensure sustainable protection and conservation of natural resources. Traditional Authorities play a major role in this, we have seen the communities once sensitized, they do buy in to protect Malawi's nature and they do see the link between deforestation and climate change which directly affects their lives. There is a real need to support communities with alternative ways of earning their living and to improve their areas through development of roads, hospitals, schools etc. This will help the communities to stop depending on natural resources. In that way, they will be put at the center of protecting the government forests.