Trial by Mountain

As the first rays of a crisp Malawian dawn break over the Kasungu National Park, the sheer cliffs of a formidable peak cast a long shadow over the red earth and mosaic of deciduous miombo woodland. Mwam’gombe. The largest granite mountain in the national park; the name means “like a bull” – for its aggressor stance, towering over the undulating plains.

This morning, before the African sun rises too high and bakes the earth, Mwam’gombe is a hive of activity. Two dozen men and women, ant-like from afar, are lugging building materials up the unforgiving crags. Four metric tons in total. The mission is to build a repeater station atop the mountain, the highest point for miles, amplifying radio signals to outlying camps. When city consultants deemed the project too expensive, requiring helicopters and air support, the team leader quietly rebuffed the finding: “We don’t need helicopters. We have feet.”‍

These men and women are Rangers in training. For the first time for many, the high bar they have to clear to join the elite Malawian anti-poaching unit depends not on their tribe, ethnicity, or social standing, but on grit, attitude, and attainment.

The leader in question is a burly, ex-South African Special Forces soldier, Mike Labuschagne, whose name commands widespread respect in the conservation sphere. The Ranger training exercise is the latest in a long line of efforts to curb the illegal hunting or capture of wild animals across diverse swathes of Malawi and Zambia, but perhaps even more importantly to Labuschagne, it epitomizes a progressive shift toward the empowerment of marginalized local communities.

Reciprocal Learnings

Labuschagne is a product of a lifetime of lessons these challenging territories hold. After 10 years in the South African military, in the mid-1980s, he was seconded to guerrilla armies in Angola and Mozambique during proxy wars arising from Cold War rivalries. The seasoned soldier found himself fighting shoulder to shoulder with guerrillas recruited from subsistence farming communities, whose intimate knowledge of the land, psychological resilience, physical hardiness, and sense of community surpassed anything he had seen. He learned much from their uncanny ability to follow spoor, while sharing, in turn, his formal military training.

Labuschagne observed the self-effacing courage and almost fatalistic bent of his new brothers in arms. The subsistence villager-soldiers received no reward for their sacrifices, while — when the various peace talks were complete —  the connected and powerful from both sides were well rewarded, reaping the riches of post-colonial opulence. The story is familiar across much of sub-Saharan Africa, where the urban elite continue to exploit the rural periphery.

Skin in the Game

Recruited by the renowned conservationist Dr. Anthony Hall-Martin into anti-poaching in the early 1990s, Labuschagne saw an opportunity to work toward redressing the balance. Together with 11 other directors — eight of whom are Malawian or Zambian and grew up in subsistence villages — Labuschagne founded Wilderness Welfare, a community-based organization fostering capacity strengthening and community empowerment. Collectively, the 12 members have given over 200 years of active service to the African wildlife conservation cause.

Wilderness Welfare’s founding principles insist that the management team must be embedded in the local culture, engaging deeply with both government and community.

"Skin in the game leads to equitable outcomes for the community,” Labuschagne explains; empowerment from within. “Decisions cannot be made a world away in London, Washington, or Berlin.”

Labuschagne elaborates: “Often, distant consultants or ‘experts’ in foreign aid focus on the ‘problem of impoverished local communities.’ However, if you have lived and worked among these communities, it’s easy to see that the intrinsic qualities of local subsistence farmers provide the very solutions we seek, not problems. The centuries of wrongs committed against local, marginalized communities have resulted in the emergence of psychologically and physically strong individuals tightly bound within a sense of community. Collectively, these resilient, incredibly hardworking ‘veterans’ are the harbingers of positive transformation in Africa’s marginalized places. Our team, made up mainly of such folk, has shown practical achievement that validates a positive, ‘solutions’ view of Africa’s subsistence communities.”

Wilderness Welfare has two divisions: Tamandani, specializing in community engagement projects, and Ngwazi, focusing on environmental law enforcement (the Rangers). Funding comes from a range of sources including the U.S. Agency for International Development, the German Embassy, and the South African Wildlife College; however, grants are not abundant, and are vital for the community empowerment work to continue. Wilderness Welfare’s scope has also grown to include various income-generating activities to support long-term impact.

“I am impressed at how much is achieved on a small budget,” says Lydia Chilenga, director of logistics for Wilderness Welfare. “Especially when I saw how little was achieved in national parks where I worked on projects with far bigger budgets.”

Resourcefulness, pragmatism, and an intimate local knowledge of where funds are most impactful are key. Between 2017 and 2021, Wilderness Welfare placed US$80,000 a year directly into the hands of members of the community.

“Despite often poor levels of schooling, these subsistence farmers make more considered and wise economic decisions than highly educated urban elites when it comes to the distribution of financial aid, because their margins are so slim,” explains Labuschagne. “If they make a poor decision, their crops fail or their children can’t go to school.”

The community engagement model is as simple as it is effective: The Tamandani projects empower local people to do tasks often otherwise given to foreign, urban-based contractors. Formal training programs and continuous mentorship build a broad skills base among local villagers, placing ownership and impact in the hands of those with a vested interest in the outcome.

Building the Future

Roads, bridges, culverts, offices, school buildings, ranger homes, and electric fences are built by Wilderness Welfare to last. A mechanics’ workshop has been established to maintain a fleet of vehicles capable of covering the vast expanses of challenging terrain. A community tailoring studio, established by Labuschagne in the 1990s and now governed by Wilderness Welfare, supplies all of the Rangers working in the Malawi-Zambia Trans-Frontier Conservation Area with uniforms. The tailoring studio also creates more colorful garments for the local market, manufacturing thousands of garments annually. A welding workshop creates fences, gates, and building materials.

Malawi is littered with the remnants of decrepit infrastructure projects due to impractical government or inexpert foreign aid initiatives (where corruption and diversion of funds are not uncommon), such as the ubiquitous skeletons of expensive wildlife fences that have never worked. Tamandani endeavors are slowly but surely shifting the needle. In the 18 months before the completion of its Chikolonga electric fence (Malawi) there were 25 human-wildlife conflict deaths. In the five years since completion, there have been zero.

Government support for the model has been considerable, especially from the Malawi government and its Department of National Parks and Wildlife.‍

Local Intelligence Wins

Wilderness Welfare's second division, Ngwazi, focuses on an empowerment approach to combating the illegal trade in wildlife products. Characteristically skeptical of inexpert intervention and the squandering of scarce funding for this cause, Labuschagne explains: “Most donors, in an attempt to combat poaching and the ivory trade, spend millions of dollars on expensive technology, databases, and foreign consultants. These advisers are paid fortunes to interpret endless information from questionable sources. In contrast, Wilderness Welfare, appreciating the depth of knowledge of the people of this landscape, invests in local intelligence.”

“Subsistence villagers,” Labuschagne continues, “know everything about a stranger’s visit to another member of the village, or the sudden acquisition of wealth by another member of the community.”

The organization established the Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit in 2016 and the results are demonstrative. In 2020 alone, working closely with local law enforcement, 790 kg of ivory and 62 illegal firearms were seized, with 505 wildlife-related arrests secured. Charges ranged from illegal possession of ivory to that of hippo teeth, pangolins, or bush meat.

Poaching and the Bottom Line

In terms of addressing the root cause rather than the symptoms of illegal wildlife product trafficking, Labuschagne looks to the main driver: poverty. “You can’t insult the intelligence of local people by pleading or showing them pictures of animals suffering,” he said. “This is about the bottom line. It needs to make more economic sense not to poach.”

A long-term objective of Wilderness Welfare is to join Luambe National Park and Lukusuzi National Park in Zambia with a conservation conservancy, managed by local communities. Living, farming, or hunting within the conservancy would be prohibited, providing a corridor of rich vegetation and abundant wildlife, and securing a huge east-west migration route. Without this measure, the area is at risk of being over farmed by cotton farmers, and slash and burn subsistence, destroying the ecosystem.

If managed properly, the conservancy and national parks will flourish with a surplus of wildlife. When animal density is high, a significant proportion of large mammals move out into concessions where sustainable hunting is allowed. This meat can then be harvested and distributed. With the proper protection, national parks thereby remain vibrant and free of hunting, while controlled hunting under a license in the concessions feeds the local population.

“If you create efficient processes, over time, they deliver benefits to the community that will sway them,” says Labuschagne. “It becomes simple: Are you getting more from conservation? Or are you getting more from poaching?”

A High Bar for Transformation

As a week of grueling physical trials draws to a close on mount Mwam’gombe, the Ranger officers survey the cadet team’s newly constructed repeater station. A 75-foot radio mast has been successfully erected by hand, with taut wire guy ropes holding the impressive structure in place atop the exposed peak.

The training is not for the fainthearted. “Seventy-five percent of all applicants find it too tough and drop out,” explains Benson Kanyembo, recipient of the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award 2019, who gained so much both personally and professionally from the experience that he went on to become a senior training instructor. But it is fair and it is equitable. The results of the challenging selection process speak for themselves. Beyond the impressive arrest and animal product seizure figures, under the Rangers’ protection, the Kasungu National Park has seen the population of large mammals double in five years.

The work of the Rangers ties the two divisions of Wilderness Welfare — community empowerment and environmental law enforcement — together. In directly honing essential skills and services that are vital to protected area management, these subsistence villagers are moved from the periphery to the heart of the conservation struggle. Wilderness Welfare’s principle achievement, according to Labuschagne, is the deserved sense of ownership and influence felt by so many members of this intricate social matrix surrounding Africa’s national parks. If nurtured, such progress will pay conservation and social justice dividends for years to come.