For the past four months, I have been working as an Intern at the Project African Wilderness (PAW) trust, in their Manchester office. Established to halt and reverse the decline of species and their habitats at Mwabvi Wildlife reserve in Southern Malawi, PAW believes that the optimum use of the environment, resources and indigenous wildlife can provide mutual benefit and protection to both the reserve and its surrounding communities. For more info, see their website.
In 2004 whilst touring Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, Gaynor Asquith, the director of a UK housing and regeneration company came to understand the dilemma facing the wild spaces across the continent of Africa. She decided to invest her spare time and efforts into setting up PAW, and ever since the charity has grown in size and strength, and as a result so have animal populations at the reserve. Working here however, has taught me that successful conservation is not the glamorous image presented in National Geographic, but instead requires pushing pens, managing people and pimping yourself to the rich.
Mwabvi has shrunk in size by two thirds since its conception in the 1953, as a result of a growing population surrounding the reserve coupled with an economy based on agriculture. Land infringement was joined by an increase in poaching on the ungulate populations, and government funds were rightly directed towards one of the poorest human populations in the world. By the end of the 20th century, the future of the reserve seemed bleak. However, the work of PAW and the Mwabvi Wildlife and Community Trust has turned the fortunes of the reserve around, with an increase in protection, and a series of planned wildlife reintroductions. This is highlighted by the selection of the reserve as the site of a Black Rhino sanctuary, and the translocation of a breeding pair is due sometime next year.
In order to achieve the admirable aim of increasing the Malawian wildlife metapopulations, and secure the reserve against an almost guaranteed increase in poaching attempts, MWCT intend to construct a game-proof fence along the reserve perimeter. The route has been agreed with local landowners, village elders and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, but the long term effects of fencing in wildlife (and fencing out people) require long term consideration. Whilst this tool is now regularly employed by managers of wild spaces, certain researchers argue that barriers will exacerbate the problem of habitat fragmentation and wildlife isolation (e.g. Boone & Hobbs 2004), one of the major drivers behind the current wave of species extinction.
In the past, fences have led to disastrous crashes in wildlife populations. In Botswana during the 1980s, a series of cattle proof fences were built to attempt to counter the spread of foot and mouth disease from wildebeest to livestock. However, the fence cut across a dry season migration route, and herds of thousands of wildebeest were separated from their ancestral watering holes, eventually dying of thirst. Truncated migration routes may also lead to undesirable feedback effects on ecosystem functioning such as reduced rates of nutrient cycling, compositional changes to less palatable species and reduced grassland productivity. The encircled animal populations are unable to travel to new pastures, and so may overpopulate the area beyond its carrying capacity. In the long-term, a fence will trap a population so that it will be unable to shift with changes in climatic range as the planet shifts in temperature. Finally, surrounding populations are separated from resources which they may depend on.
And yet, reserve managers argue that we are faced with little alternative until human population growth and land management issues are tackled. We either keep these areas separated and protected, or allow them to be converted into further agricultural land. Some even go further, arguing that these fenced in areas can act like Noah's ark, to house nature until human mismanagement is tackled, and the sins of our past mistakes are washed away. PAW takes a different approach, by facilitating education, healthcare, and business development off the back of money and opportunities presented by ecotourism. Rather than remaining an island separate from the surrounding community, it becomes a central component. The reserve is now one of the largest employers in the region, and it is hoped will continue to attempt to address the tricky relationship of man and nature.