Decades of spirited work and multi-million kwacha investment to restock the Liwonde National Park are now being repaid with massive plunder of the world renowned eco-tourist attraction.
It is now poaching galore in the park mostly by local citizens, although it is also alleged Chinese and Zambian poachers are involved in the destruction.
The environmental crime has already turned in an estimated K2 billion loss in 100 days from late April.At the heart of this environmental crime is allegedly corruption in top management ranks at the park and also disenchantment and indiscipline among game rangers tasked with keeping poachers away.
Malawi News visited the park recently and sourced information from two safari operators and nature conservationists.
We also gained the confidence of four game rangers who gave us inside information on the matter.
All the contacts spoken to confirmed Liwonde National Park is now a paradise for poaching, a practice they said started getting out of control around 2009 and has now reached alarming levels.
Mike Labuschagne, Programme Head for the Liwonde Conservation Project, said he has 20 years experience in nature conservation and a total of 11 years with Malawi's Department of National Parks and Wildlife and therefore does not get shocked easily.
"But the plunder that is happening in the park has really shocked me. A culture of corruption has taken root. I must emphasise there are some hardworking and decent officers but they are in a minority and they are struggling against a culture of corruption," he said.
"I have gone through the laws of Malawi and I know they demand that everyone in the public service should protect the name and credibility of government; so there are people in the park who are not performing their duty in line with that law," added Labuschagne.
He said he has since written Minister of Tourism, Daniel Liwimbi, seeking his intervention on the "rampant corruption" to save the park from further destruction.
Four game rangers whose names we will not disclose also told Malawi News that both junior and senior officers collude with poachers.
They have networks from within the park to outside. These syndicates compromise the set animal security procedures.
"The officers know the movements of the game rangers and because they are taking part in the plunder, they alert poachers outside about where game rangers are located. In that way, poachers come through other points of the park and kill the animals," said one game ranger who has worked in the park for over 15 years and has captured scores of poachers.
Malawi News also learnt a row over night allowances for the patrol rangers has dampened their morale for work. Their pressure for improved allowances has resulted in a court case which is yet to be concluded.
And, because of the protest, several rangers are being isolated by top management such that some have gone 11 months without going for patrols and no one questions them.
They said they were getting K6,000 for every five nights they spend in the camps where they encounter harsh survival conditions including battles with armed poachers. Each ranger is allowed 15 nights a month.
"But we have been fighting for adjustment of the allowances because the job is tough and workers in similar grade in the civil service get higher allowances than we do. Because we protested, we have been sidelined by management.
"Poaching has gone out of hand now not because game rangers are few. There are more than adequate numbers, about 50 of us, but not all of us are working now because of this isolation.
"Discipline has also gone down such that some spend work hours getting drunk and they don't get punished for it," said another game ranger.
Counting only the number of poached animal carcasses found in the park, the Liwonde Conservation Project figures show that in 100 days from late April this year, 93 animals were poached. They include five elephants, one rhino, 21 sable antelopes, 15 zebras and 17 impalas.
The poachers have been using all manner of equipment including hunting with dogs, setting snares and crude traps and poisoning.
Calculated on the basis of the value of the animals as contained in the National Parks and Wildlife Regulations of 2011, Malawi has lost K189 million in 3 months in the animals whose carcasses were found, which suggests a multi-billion loss from 2009 when poaching is said to have begun going out of control.
The K189m loss excludes the loss in fish, birds, reptiles and tourism potential which if factored into the total loss could reach K2billion, according to Liwonde Conservation Project. That does not also include the animals that may have been killed and taken out of the park.
"This type of loss really threatens the tourism potential of Liwonde, which is Malawi's premier eco-tourism attraction. If Liwonde becomes denuded of game, then the cost may be impossible to estimate," reads a statement from the project.
When contacted for comment, Division Manager, Sam Nyanyale, under whose charge the park falls, referred Malawi News to a spokesperson for the department, Brighton Kumchedwa.
Kumchedwa admitted poaching is one of the major challenges the department has to contend with in all the parks in Malawi. He attributed it to high levels of poverty in the communities surrounding the game reserves.
On indiscipline among game rangers and allegations of top management officials colluding with poachers, Kumchedwa said the department was not aware of anything to that effect but he promised investigation.
"Using government machinery, these allegations will be investigated. Should it be proven to be true, appropriate action will be taken," he said.
He declined to speak on allowances for park rangers saying the matter is in court.
Liwonde has over the years relied on the efforts of nature conservationists and animal lovers, among others, for its rehabilitation.
In 1992, J&B Circle was formed to assist with restocking the park through bringing in animals from South Africa and elsewhere and breeding them.
The Circle was later renamed Endangered Species of Malawi (Esom) currently being chaired by a Malawian, Khalid Hassen, who said the group was equally shocked with the developments in the park.
"To think that a few years ago, there were over 40 lions in Liwonde National Park and now we have one stray sub-adult male. is shocking," he said.