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Moving Forward: Malawian Elephant Herd Relocation

A controversial relocation of one of the world’s last free-ranging elephant herds from Malawi’s southern Mangochi district to the Majete Wildlife Reserve in the Chikwawa region has been resumed after the country’s high court overturned an injunction issued by disgruntled locals to halt the rescue project.

The Malawian government approached the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to relocate the animals because of ongoing conflict between humans and elephants who cohabite the densely populated lake region. Over twenty people have been killed by the roaming elephants and countless livelihoods have been destroyed as the elephants damage crops. Villagers have retaliated by harming the elephants with bullets, nails and setting snare traps.

Although it is an incredibly complex and expensive procedure to relocate the animals, conservationists insist that while the ideal scenario would be to construct a game reserve in the area, there isn’t any financing and the area would not be able to sustain them in the long term.

The relocation is being fiercely opposed by a minority of locals primarily because of the lost economic opportunities. They want to build a wildlife sanctuary of their own, and have formed a group called Friends of Phirilongwe, named after the elephants.

According to the Nyasa Times, the group has a petition with over 1,000 signatures pleading for a fence to be built in order to keep the elephants in the area and protect their habitat, which will inevitably be deforested for logging once the elephants are gone, causing a slew of other environmental problems. They also claim that there has been intimidation and death threats against their most vocal members.

Local businessman Ismail Khan told National Geographic that without the elephants, the area’s tourism infrastructure will suffer. “They [tourists] come to see animals, and this is a tourist area, Mangochi, and they are taking our elephants away. Are tourists going to come here to Mangochi? No, I doubt it.”

Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DPNW) had initially threatened to cull the elephants through “problem animal” control. However, Jason Bell-Leask, IFAW’s Country Director for Southern Africa Region believes the government of Malawi made an ethically responsible decision that is mutually beneficial for both the elephants and the human community. “There are a very small minority of interest groups opposed to the relocation. The community extension work undertaken prior to the commencement of the relocation revealed that there was overwhelming support for the move. This was used to inform the Judge’s decision in doing away with the injunction,” he told Ethical Traveler.

“This is something that is of great concern to us and hence our involvement in assisting with what we believe is the only viable win-win solution to this problem,” he added.

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