Cheetahs make a welcome return to Liwonde
Those of you that were followers of Essential Journeys when it was originally called Eco Travel Guide may recall my passion for wildlife conservation, and cheetahs in particular, having spent some time in Namibia reporting on conservation efforts by various organisations
Well, I am delighted to report on vital work currently being undertaken in other parts of the continent, with a small founder population of cheetahs having been successfully relocated to Liwonde National Park in Malawi, restoring the severely threatened species at least twenty years after its extinction in the country.
Led by African Parks, a conservation non-profit that manages national parks and protected areas on behalf of governments across the continent, in partnership with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), the translocation of four cheetahs to Liwonde on May 17th formed a national milestone as the first big cats made their return to the flourishing park.
Although 20 years since occurring in Malawi, it has been close to a century since cheetahs were documented in Liwonde National Park. Lions and leopards were also historically common, but disappeared in recent years due to poaching. Decades of habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and poaching severely reduced the nation’s predator populations, entirely eradicating cheetahs, a species threatened with extinction in Africa. “Large predators like cheetahs play pivotal roles in African ecosystems, but they are in troubling decline across the continent,” Liwonde National Park Manager Craig Reid told Essential Journeys. “Malawi has made progressive commitments to conserve wildlife. The reintroduction of the cheetah is historic for the country and a new era for the park, where the return of large predators holds great optimism for the restoration of the natural system and the conservation of this highly vulnerable species.”
African Parks and the Endangered Wildlife Trust oversaw the successful translocation of four cheetahs, which made the journey by plane from South Africa and arrived safely in Liwonde National Park, thanks to the support provided by Ulendo Airlink and Robin Pope Safaris for the transportation. They were released into specially-built bomas to allow for close supervision during a period of adjustment, until being released into the wider park. The animals are all in good health and are expected to do well in Liwonde, where habitat and prey conditions are optimal and measures are in place to ensure their ongoing conservation and protection.
African Parks assumed management of Liwonde National Park in partnership with the DNPW in 2015, and since then has completely overhauled law enforcement to secure the park, making significant progress in revitalising habitat and wildlife populations through the reduction of poaching and mitigating human-wildlife conflict. The reintroduction of the cheetah forms part of the collective vision of African Parks and the Malawian government to restore the country’s parks, rehabilitate wildlife populations, and increase tourism, creating highly valued assets for the country and its people. Managing and restoring key species also positions Liwonde as a globally significant wildlife tourism destination, with benefits flowing to local communities.
The reintroduction of cheetahs to Liwonde National Park is another extraordinary story of progressive and optimistic wildlife conservation in Malawi. On the heels of the historic ‘500 Elephants’ initiative, which will see 500 elephants being moved from Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve (all three parks are managed by African Parks with DNPW), the cheetah’s homecoming marks the historic return of the threatened species to the nation at least 20 years after its local extinction. This opens a hopeful new chapter for large predator conservation in the park. Liwonde has welcomed back its first big cat, a profound milestone for the ongoing restoration of this valuable protected area.
The cheetahs were carefully sourced through EWT’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project, which was established in 2011 with the aim of creating safe spaces for cheetahs in South Africa and managing the existing population in a number of reserves to ensure genetic diversity. The project now operates in 54 reserves, and in 2016, began investigating opportunities for reintroduction outside of South Africa. This partnership was deemed ideal, as African Parks has secured safe spaces for a myriad of species in the reserves it manages. Phinda and Welgevonden Private Game Reserves made a male cheetah available, while Mountain Zebra National Park and Amakhala Private Game Reserve made a female cheetah available for this reintroduction into Malawi. These are considered to be some of the top cheetah reserves in South Africa, all having contributed substantially to cheetah conservation efforts in the country.
Eradicated from 90 percent of their historical range in Africa, cheetahs are listed as Vulnerable with as few as 6,700 estimated to remain in the wild. “Reintroduction to safe and fenced protected areas is one way to protect the future of the species on the continent,” said EWT Cheetah Metapopulation Coordinator Vincent van der Merwe. “This collaborative undertaking represents a highly valuable opportunity for both the park and cheetah conservation in light of the need for urgent action to address their decline.” Since assuming management of Liwonde, African Parks has constructed a reliable perimeter fence, removed thousands of snare traps, significantly reduced poaching, and is working with local communities to ensure the long-term success of conservation in the area.
African Parks is a non-profit organisation that takes on total responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks and protected areas in partnership with governments and local communities. Since 2003 African Parks has, in partnership with the Malawi government, managed Majete Wildlife Reserve, a partnership that has seen the reserve restored and restocked with an initial 2,500 animals including the Big Five. Majete has been a great success and is now one of Malawi’s premier wildlife sanctuaries, conserving and protecting more than 7,500 animals. With the addition of Liwonde National Park and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in 2015, African Parks now manages 3 of Malawi’s 9 protected areas and with goals to match all that has been achieved in Majete, African Parks are transforming the wildlife of the country.
If Malawi had a perceived weakness in tourism terms, it was that some of its neighbours offered a ‘better’ safari experience. However, these developments are resulting in a total transformation of Malawi’s wildlife and safaris. Malawi is fast becoming one of the most complete destinations in Africa, with lake, landscape, culture and now wildlife experiences of the very highest quality. Warm, welcoming and unspoilt, Malawi really is just waiting to be discovered.
Main image | The translocated cheetah are adjusting well to their new surroundings in Liwonde | © African Parks, Frank Weitzer