Inside The Duke of Sussex's efforts to preserve African parks

The British royal is expanding the amount of protected land in Commonwealth nations.Tuesday, 1 October 2019

In 2016 The Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, flew over a forest reserve in southern Malawi called Mangochi. He was shocked by what he saw. Though the reserve borders one of the country’s most popular safari destinations, it looked badly deforested and neglected. People had started moving in past the park’s borders. “These communities are encroaching way beyond where they should be and this whole place is on fire,” he recalls thinking. (See stunning images selected by Prince Harry showing the beauty and power of trees.)

Malawi, a sliver of a country tucked into the borders of Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania, straddles the environment of both southern and east Africa. The electricity-poor region is reliant on charcoal for energy and reportedly has the highest rate of deforestation in the region. As conservation groups begin to tackle this crisis, a royal effort hopes to exert enough pressure to keep the indigenous forests preserved.

On Monday, three years after Prince Harry made that first flyover and urged Mangochi’s protection, he made an announcement: Mangochi Forest Reserve and Liwonde National Park, which sit side by side, had officially joined the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy. Under the scorching sun the Duke of Sussex welcomed some 300 square miles of nature into his grandmother’s initiative. The plaques indicating the new designation are mounted on the stone entrance to Liwonde, beneath a metallic tree crafted from confiscated poachers’ snares. 

The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy (QCC) launched in 2015 to unite all 53 Commonwealth nations in conservation. Since then, 46 countries have pledged to protect 60 sites—either by preserving a piece of indigenous forest or replanting a deforested area. The visit to Malawi comes at the end of Prince Harry’s 10-day tour of southern Africa. A few days earlier, in a remote region of Angola, he pulled off a colourful piece of fabric to reveal a QCC designation for the Luengue-Luiana National Park. In Botswana before that, he visited the area around Chobe National Park, home to Africa’s largest elephant population, which is also joining the QCC. In Malawi, the rebuilding effort has just begun.

Liwonde, which sprawls out from the Shire River, is one of Malawi’s popular safari spots. Just 30 minutes from the main gate, a family of elephants walks along the road, foraging for leaves. Buffalo stand and stare, and spry kudu sprint away from passing safari cars. The landscape is dusty and the trees are brittle, but when the rainy season begins it will turn lush. More than 600 elephants share the grasslands and floodplains with lions, leopards, and threatened black rhinoceroses.

Poaching has taken its toll on Liwonde. In 2005, ornithologist Tiwonge Gawa was doing a walking census in Liwonde when she came across a watering hole. Around it were piles of feathers and carcasses: hundreds of doves, starlings, and Lilian’s lovebirds—the species she was studying. When the skies are dry, the birds travel in large flocks to find water; these had landed in a pool poisoned by poachers. This scene, she said, used to be common.

Then, in 2015, African Parks took control of Liwonde. Across the continent, the organisation—Prince Harry is its president—temporarily oversees struggling parks and helps them rebound. Since then, African Parks has installed a perimeter fence around Liwonde, built a ranger training center, and overhauled security. Seven cheetah and 10 lions were reintroduced to the park while more than 500 elephants were moved out in order to halt destruction to nearby communities. Tourism has jumped, and British army units rotate in for anti-wildlife trafficking deployments.

The national parks have improved, says Gawa, the chairperson of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi, the country’s oldest environmental NGO, but she sees a crisis in her homeland’s forests, like Mangochi Forest Reserve. For a long time, forest guards were not armed, she says, and it was easy to enter and cut down trees. In one instance in 2015, illegal logging had so badly depleted an essential forest that the government dispatched the military to stop it. “The unique forests have disappeared,” Gawa says, “and [with them] the unique species.”

On a sparse landing field in Liwonde, Peter Fearnhead, the CEO of African Parks, points toward where the park intersects with the Mangochi reserve, 15 miles away. Last year, African Parks expanded their oversight to the reserve, which was being cleared of both trees and wildlife. Now, the organization must play a delicate game: protecting Liwonde and Mangochi’s wildlife and resources, while keeping local communities, many of whom once farmed and hunted there, happy. 

An electric boundary fence, which already encases Liwonde, has begun tracing the outline of Mangochi. The perimeter is not just for keeping people out—but keeping animals in. “These are some of the highest concentrations of hippos and elephants anywhere in Africa,” Fearnhead says. “If you don’t contain them they end up killing people.”

David Nangoma was born just outside the park boundary, and now serves as a liaison between the park and the nearly 800,000 people who live on its outskirts. When he joined African Parks in 2015, Liwonde had 6,000 large animals and double that number of poachers’ snares. Locals thought the park had been sold and demanded to know what was happening to their land. In an effort to offer livelihoods outside the park, African Parks has set up beekeeping projects, constructed schools and hospitals, and created scholarships.

In both Liwonde and Mangochi, African Parks is trying to stop further deforestation and promote natural regrowth, but the future is still uncertain. While the wildlife rebound, Prince Harry worries about how long it will take to reverse decades of environmental degradation. “I think we’re going to wake up to the idea that in 10 years it’s going to be far worse than it is now,” he says. “Because for anything we do now to fix the problem there’s going to be a massive lag time.”

Those efforts are underway. The Department of Parks and Wildlife does not contribute financially to enforce the QCC designation, so the responsibility falls to African Parks to help wean local communities off of park-grown firewood by opening around 15 tree nurseries. Inside the parks’ boundaries, nature is being left alone to return in its own time.

The QCC title could bring just enough attention to prove there’s payoff in preservation. Currently, the designation doesn’t include money, but as the first environmental initiative in Queen Elizabeth II’s name—each application ends up on her desk for personal approval—it comes with the pressure of the crown and the attention of the international community. It also promises tourism. The prince envisions travelers all over the world adding the QCC areas to their bucket lists. 

At the designation ceremony, rangers, government officials, and park leadership made speeches and demonstrated anti-poaching efforts. David Nangoma believes their presence—and Prince Harry’s—will endear the park to local communities. As a row of local and international media set up TV cameras in front of the park’s headquarters, he nodded approvingly. “The world is watching.”

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