Field essay: deadly men paddling dugout canoes in Malawi’s Liwonde National Park

This report was sent to International Fund for Animal Welfare headquarters by Mike Labuscagne, the manager of our Protecting Elephants in Malawi’s Liwonde National Park project.

I visited Mike and this project in January 2011 and saw first hand the suffering, death and habitat destruction caused by so-called “subsistence” hunters who, given modern economic realities, are simply the low-level shock troops for the large-scale commercial wildlife traders who are killing off wildlife at an alarming rate. - JK

In developed nations, there is perhaps no more quintessential image of the ‘subsistence hunter’ than that of a fisherman in a dugout canoe plying his trade in an African lagoon or river.

Law enforcement rangers in Liwonde National Park, Malawi, however, have long regarded this type of ‘subsistence hunter’ as an especially destructive and elusive type of criminal – a poacher and illegal killer of animals.

So called “subsistence hunters” working a dug-out canoe.The contrast between the public’s sympathetic view of the ‘subsistence hunter’ with the wildlife ranger’s view of him as a poacher, a destructive and elusive criminal, requires some explanation.

The prevalence of wire snares and butchered wildlife carcasses, in close association with favoured fishing grounds, has convinced Liwonde’s law enforcement staff that the overwhelming majority of trespassing fishermen also habitually hunt the Park’s large mammal species.

The fact that wire snares set by these fishermen are made of wire stolen when they vandalise the boundary fence makes this an especially destructive form of criminal activity. When ranger foot patrols try to apprehend these poachers they simply run to their dugout canoes and paddle away to safety across the Shire River.

Bringing the ‘subsistence’ poacher to justice

The elusiveness of poachers in dugout canoes gave them virtual impunity from law enforcement.

Until recently, whenIFAW provided a fast and powerful boat from which to conduct river patrols.

On the second day of patrolling with the new boat in March 2012, two dugout canoes were intercepted deep inside the boundaries of Liwonde National Park.

With the boat plowing toward them, the poachers realized they were about to be arrested and would have to face prosecution. So they dived into the swamp and reeds at the river’s edge and made their escape, leaving their canoes behind.

A victim of the poacher’s wire snare.The illegal cargo aboard the canoes confirmed the ranger’s suspicion that the ‘subsistence’ fish poachers also hunt the Park’s mammals. The dugouts contained a sizeable quantity of illegally caught fish and the freshly butchered remains of a very young waterbuck.

Sadly, there were also two terrified, live, trussed up, waterbuck foals lying on the wet floors of the two canoes

The butchered remains of one waterbuck foal and the two live ones made sense to the rangers. Waterbuck foals that lie sleeping amongst their herd often remain laying down in cover if the herd is startled and runs away. In these situations the foals appear to have an instinct to escape predation by hiding and not attracting attention by jumping up and running.

Experienced hunters, however, know this behaviour.

They understand that if they startle a herd at an opportune time a number of young foals may be left behind, lying in cover.

It appears that the ‘subsistence’ fishermen/hunters used this tactic to catch these three foals all at once. They must have been experienced in hunting as well as fishing.

Of course, the welfare of the two young waterbucks became the rangers’ priority.

The foals being taken across the Shire River towards the herdFortunately, a herd of about 20 waterbuck were seen across the river, in the direction from which the poachers had been rowing. The ideal solution would be to reunite the two foals with their mothers as quickly as possible. So the foals were taken across the Shire River towards the herd.

In just a few minutes they were back on the eastern bank of the Shire, about 400 metres from the nervous herd of waterbuck who watched the rangers from a distance.

The foals were then untied.

One jumped to its feet quickly. This youngster’s herd instinct seemed to keep it from running away: It stayed close to its injured friend and close to the rangers who had rescued it.

But the second foal struggled to stand.

The foals were brought to a dry, slightly raised, area around an anthill.The way it had been tied up may have caused cramps. Stress may also have played a role in its reluctance to stand. After a few minutes, it, too, stood up and showed a willingness to follow the rangers.

The foals were led to a dry, slightly raised, area around an anthill (Figure 8), no more than 350 metres from the waterbuck herd, which continued to eye the rangers inquisitively.

In a short while the foals lay down by the anthill and the rangers withdrew, hoping the herd would return and collect the two youngsters.

When landing the boat on the eastern side of the Shire to release the waterbuck foals, the rangers noticed two fishing traps and a gill net strung across an adjacent small lagoon.

This discovery made sense since the two canoes contained a haul of fish and there were no fishing lines or hooks on board. It was likely that the poachers in the two canoes had set fish nets and traps, then went to set snares and hunt young waterbucks.

When they returned, they collected fish from the net and traps, then reset them before going to offload the fish and waterbuck they had illegally hunted.

The close proximity of these nets and traps to the waterbuck herd was regarded by the rangers as strong circumstantial evidence that the three waterbuck foals – one killed and butchered; two captured live and trussed up in the canoes – were taken from the nearby herd.

After pulling the nets and fish traps out of the river and destroying the poachers’ abandoned canoes, the rangers withdrew to their base. They returned the next day to inspect the area: No sign of the two waterbuck foals were found. Since there were no carcasses and no signs of scavenging, the rangers believe the foals were reunited with their mothers and the herd.

In inspecting and sweeping the same area, dozens of snares were lifted from the woodland and thickets bordering the Shire floodplain.

These snares were almost certainly set by ‘fishermen’ as it would make no sense for snare poachers to walk kilometres through fertile snare-hunting terrain to set snares in the woodland immediately adjacent to the river.

The positioning of these snares only makes sense if they were set by poachers who could ferry the snares across the Shire, then ferry the butchered remains of killed animals back across the water.

During March 2012 alone, more than 300 snares were lifted from woodland immediately adjacent to the Shire floodplain.

This number indicates a high level of hunting activity, almost certainly from so-called ‘subsistence fishermen’.


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