Malawi Zambia Elephant Landscape ProjectMost African elephant range areas transcend national borders
One year ago, IFAW put the finishing touches on years of work to create a safe home for elephants in one of Malawi’s premier national parks—by moving 263 from one of Malawi’s smallest parks nearly 500 kilometres across the country to release them into Kasungu National Park.
One year later, Kasungu’s elephant population is healthier, and the park’s tourism is on the rise. The ambitious translocation of a record number of elephants has made inroads to resurrecting Kasungu as a star among southern Africa’s protected areas.
Earlier efforts to boost Kasungu’s elephants
Kasungu once stood proud among Malawi’s protected areas. But years of neglect and rampant poaching decimated its diverse wildlife population, reducing elephant numbers to less than 50 from more than 2,000 strong in the 1970s. Once a popular tourist destination, visitor numbers had virtually dried up due to the lack of wildlife.
IFAW has been actively supporting the conservation efforts of the Malawi Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) for many years, i.e. building capacity through training and equipment, securing habitats and working with communities. So when Kasungu needed our help, we didn’t hesitate.
Starting with Kasungu, our USAID-supported Combating Wildlife Crime project in the Malawi-Zambia Transfrontier Conservation Area aimed to stabilise or increase elephant populations by reducing poaching-related deaths and promoting coexistence between humans and animals.
In 2015, Kasungu’s elephant population was just under 50 individuals. By 2022, the six-year effort of IFAW and DNPW had virtually ended all forms of poaching and wildlife crime, developed a cadre of dedicated, well-trained, and motivated rangers, built infrastructure, and revived the community’s economy. The elephant population rose to 120.
The next step: translocation
While the success was undoubted, Kasungu’s elephant numbers were insufficient to ensure a viable long-term population. But Kasungu was primed to take on the excess of elephants that were testing the carrying capacity of Liwonde National Park, a few hundred kilometres east. Centred in Malawi, the approximately 580-kilometre-squared Liwonde is Malawi’s second-smallest national park. Its rapidly growing elephant population made it possible—and necessary—to move excess animals.
Working in partnership with DNPW Malawi and African Parks, the move was a colossal and complicated process, requiring a small army of conservationists, translocation experts, veterinarians, helpers, helicopters, and a fleet of specially modified trucks to move up to 27 elephants at a time, day-by-day, over many weeks in mid-2022. Catching and crating, trucks trundled the nearly 500 kilometres from one park to another as truckload after truckload of elephants were moved and safely released into their new home.
Science leading the way
One year later, Kasungu communities are learning to live alongside their giant neighbours.
IFAW uses science to guide practical interventions—including constructing kilometres of solar-powered electrified fencing to help protect communities from elephants straying beyond park boundaries. The fence construction is ongoing, with 70 kilometres already completed and an additional 20 kilometres expected to be finished by the end of the year. A partnership between local communities employs over 100 men and women to erect the fence, and an additional 17 permanent staff monitor the fence daily to keep it active and make repairs.
Science is also leading the way in providing the facts we need to ensure the success of this ambitious exercise, not only to restock Kasungu’s elephant and wildlife population and restore the park’s viability as a tourism hotspot and economic, but also to support IFAW’s goals to ensure elephants once again roam freely across the borders and landscapes of Malawi and Zambia.
At the time of the translocation, we fitted radio collars to five elephants (four females and one bull) from Kasungu’s resident herds; 24 collars (19 cows and five bulls) were put on translocated elephants. The elephants’ movements are closely monitored and are fascinating to observe.
Our “eye-in-the-sky” observations show that Kasungu’s original resident elephants remain primarily in the same areas they have always occupied. However, the translocated elephants are widely exploring their new environment, not confining their movements within the park.
Working closely with communities
As a critical landscape in the TFCA, part of Kasungu shares a border with Zambia. The national park will always remain unfenced along its international border, allowing elephants to wander freely between the two countries.
This has led to some conflict with communities and, tragically, some fatalities. IFAW acknowledges these with concern and care and provides immediate support to families and communities on the occasions this has been required.
Both Patricio Ndadzela, IFAW’s director for Malawi and Zambia and Brighton Kumchedwa, director of the Malawi Department of Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), acknowledge the challenges but explain that invasions are common when translocated elephant populations try to establish themselves in a new environment.
“They are trying to establish their territory. There will be these movements from one corner of the park to the other as they explore their territory until they eventually settle down,” Kumchedwa says.
“IFAW works closely with the communities to ensure they are informed and can stay safe when elephants come close,” Ndadzela says.
“Community outreach, training, and sensitisation by our teams are helping people better manage their behaviour and how they interact with elephants,” he continues. “We also have Rapid Response Units on call round-the-clock to react when elephants come too close to farms and homesteads.”
Adding 263 elephants to Kasungu National Park has already shown positive outcomes. Tourism in the park is gradually growing, and communities are benefiting from improved employment opportunities. The Kasungu Wildlife Conservation for Community Development Association (KAWICCODA), a cooperative of surrounding village members, has signed a revenue-sharing agreement with the park. This agreement has enabled the association to undertake various development projects, including constructing teachers’ houses, supporting health centres, and establishing a conservation lodge near the park’s main gate. Beekeeping and maize mill enterprises have also been made possible through IFAW’s support.
Although the Combating Wildlife Crime project concluded in 2022, IFAW remains committed to supporting the completion of the fence and providing interventions that contribute to the wellbeing of the local communities. We assist cooperatives with irrigation infrastructure to enhance farming activities. These efforts aim to develop tourism, promote protected area management, and improve livelihoods in the Kasungu region.
Elephants are at the heart of IFAW’S Room to Roam initiative aimed at creating vast connected landscapes providing wildlife and people with the space they need to live and thrive together. By creating safe passages for elephants and other wildlife to move freely within their home ranges, we can ensure greater biodiversity, a natural resilience to climate change, and a secure future for animals and people.