There’s concern in some quarters that Malawi needs to keep an eye on its lion and leopard population, MaraPost’s Charles Mkula reportsT
he Ngoni warriors recently rolled across the grasslands of the Maseko Ngoni headquarters in Malawi’s mountainous central region Ntcheu district in full regimental regalia.
Their dress was made from animal products which included leather, fur, feathers and bracelets. Like the warriors, some prominent people at this colourful occasion marking the official crowning of chieftainship of a Ngoni chief to become Inkosi ya Makosi Gomani V wore leopard and lion skins.
However, the traditional usage of leopard, lion and other wild animal skins by the Ngonis and other ethnic groupings as cultural ornaments has triggered off debate especially in the wake of declining populations of the wild animals whose existence have become huge tourist attractions and consequently sources of national income.
Environmentalists note that the population of wild cats in Malawi has over the years been declining and that if no remedial measures are taken, the animals will become extinct.
While loss of habitation for these endangered species caused by human settlement and cultivation have been listed as some of the causes of the declining numbers of wild cats, cultural practices have also made it on to the list.
Deputy Director of National Parks and Wildlife, Brighton Kumchenga, notes that while there are no reliable estimates of leopard population sizes in Africa, “leopards have the largest distribution of any wild cat, occurring widely in eastern and central Africa.
“In sub-Saharan Africa, leopards remain widely, albeit now patchily, distributed within historical limits,” he says observing that in Malawi, leopards may be found in Kasungu, Liwonde, Lengwe Nyika National Parks, Vwaza, Majete and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserves
Studies estimate that by 2005 leopards have disappeared from at least 36.7% of their historical range in Africa.
“In recent times, the African leopard population is labeled as near threatened,” he says.
Kumchenga also observes that lion populations which were previously widely distributed throughout in Malawi have declined because of human population increase which has led to a loss of suitable habitat.
He says “reduction in prey base and conflicts with people has also
resulted in significant reduction in lion numbers.
“As in many countries within Africa, the lion is a potent symbol for the people of Malawi. It is well represented in national symbolism as well as in the local folklore and tradition of the Malawian people”.
Kumchenga cites the Coat of Arms of Malawi which features two lions. He explains that the lion is the official symbol of the Presidency of the Republic and also appears on the Presidential Flag.
“The title of ‘Order of the Lion’ was established in 1967 and is awarded to military or civilian personnel, as well as to foreigners, for distinguished and outstanding service to the Republic of Malawi,” he says explaining that because of the deep fear of lions within Malawi, passed on through stories to children, the lion is locally and traditionally an animal associated with bravery and strength and power.
The wildlife official notes that like the Maseko Ngoni’s, the Zulu people (originating from South Africa) living in Malawi’s northern region Mzimba district also use lion skins as a symbol of power during dances.
Kumchenga believes that the contribution of the Ngoni and other tribal groups to the declining populations of wild cats as cultural ornaments is insignificant.
“Although not documented it is believed that lions are killed throughout Malawi for medicinal purposes,” he adds.
Kumchenga says in the country’s northern region the lions spotted in Nyika National Park are only transient while the Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve has rare sightings of the cats which are believed to transverse between Vwaza and Lumbadzi Forest Reserve in Zambia.
He says in the central region Kasungu National Park, which once held a population of 40 lions now doesn't have more than five. Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve holds about 18 lions, according to a 2010 Survey.
In the southern region, Liwonde National Park where between 30 to 50 were believed to range in the area until the late 1990s, now has an almost transient population of five lions. Mangochi – Namizimu Forest Reserve has transient populations from Liwonde National Park.
The Majete Wildlife Reserve recently reintroduced five lions and some leopards from South Africa into Malawi at the cost of about over US$50,000.
Wildlife conservationist Clement Mbota says Malawi needs a comprehensive study that specifically targets the big cats.
He observes that while there’s been no report on leopard killings from poachers in the last five years, “many traditional dancers, the Ngonis for example, possess animal trophies including leopard skins for their dances.”
Mbota says the last leopard trophy case was reported in 2005, when one person was convicted for illegal possession of a leopard skin.
He notes that the country doesn’t have a hunting quota for leopards when CITES has put the quota at 60 skins.
“There used to be exports of skins in the late 1980s and early 1990s but only five skins have been exported in the last 15 years,” he muses.
Mbota urges the government to develop a leopard management plan. He also suggests the importance of developing capacity and tools to monitor leopard population
He estimates that the number of leopard from sightings, sounds and spoor in and outside protected areas where there was indigenous or artificial forests between January 2005 and December 2008 was only 158.
Kumchenga acknowledges that the existence of wild cats contribute to the country’s tourism.
“Where the big wild cats existed and continue to exist, they have made very big contribution to the tourist attraction in Malawi’s national parks and wildlife reserves such as Kasungu, Liwonde, Lengwe Nyika National Parks, Vwaza, Majete and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserves” he says.
He points out that the National Parks and Wildlife Regulations of 2011 puts the monetary value of a lion at US$10,000 whereas that of a leopard stands at US$8,000
The government official advocates for intensive awareness creation on the importance of conservations of the cats and any wildlife species in order to promote sustainable use of wildlife resources instead of engaging in trophy hunting.
“Let communities get trophies from those animals killed during problem animal control,” he advises.
Recently the Malawi government merged the Departments of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and Culture under one Ministry to ensure that culture and conservation rely on each other.
“As DNPW promotes conservation of wildlife as having some cultural values, so does the Department of Culture,” he says adding, “Furthermore, the Wildlife Policy of 2000 promotes sustainable utilization of wildlife resources”.
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