An eight hour car ride north of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, sits a little know Nature Reserve called Vwaza Marsh. The reserve is managed by The Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and tourism infrastructure is very limited within the reserve and visitors are rare. Instead tourists are more likely to go to the better known National Parks of Liwonde and Majete, both which are managed by Africa Parks.
In 2017 the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) and Conservation Research Africa (CRA) set up a research camp inside the reserve working closely with the DNPW to map and monitor the wildlife inside the reserve. The aim of the research is to better understand the biodiversity and abundance of the animals within the reserve so that management can be improved and wildlife can be better protected from poachers. “Most of the poachers inside the reserve are after smaller bush meat, but we do also occasionally get teams of poachers with big guns going after Elephants or Hippos for their tusks”, explains Amanda Harwood, the research manager for LWT. The ivory trade is a problem all over Africa, and while in other nations the poachers have sophisticated techniques and sometimes even use helicopters, poaching in Malawi is currently on a much smaller scale. This may be why Vwaza Marsh still boasts large populations of both elephants and hippos. “It is interesting to see that a fairly large number of the female elephants in the reserve are born without tusks, or with only one tusk. It appears that here evolution is happening at a fast rate. Those born without tusks are left alone by poachers and are therefore the ones who are still alive to breed, passing on the gene of being tuskless. It is likely we will continue to see more and more of the elephants being born without tusks” says LWT’s research assistant Alex Chalkley.
Biosphere Expeditions joined forces with LWT and CRA in 2018 by sending three separate teams of citizen scientists to Vwaza. “Much of our research requires a lot of manpower and by having teams of citizen scientists, we can collect a lot of data in a short time”, explains Karen Dylan, an entomologist with CRA.
During the six weeks that the Biosphere Expedition teams were in Vwaza, 28 new elephants were identified. This is a very significant number considering it took eight months to identify 117 elephants prior to the citizen scientists coming to help. By identifying elephants, population dynamics and abundance, long-term management can be improved.
The teams also set camera traps throughout the park. Forty-nine species were captured on camera; most notably a number of flagship species that had not been recorded within the reserve before. These were lion, caracal and serval. “When the caracal imaged came up on the screen, we all cheered with joy and I got goosebumps. This elusive cat is so rarely seen, it feels very special to get several images of one” says Ida Vincent, the Biosphere Expeditions project leader.
The team also identified one new order of insects – Embioptera – the only group of insects to spin silk through their forelegs. At the end of the six week expedition, Harwood concludes that “having Biosphere Expeditions here has made it possible for us to gather a lot of data in a short amount of time. Not only this, but we have also been able to survey parts of the reserve that we otherwise find it hard to get to. This has resulted in us discovering quite a few new species in the reserve which is very exciting, as well as providing critical information for the management and conservation Vwaza Marsh.”
In summary, the three groups combined achieved this:
- 53 large mammal vehicle and 12 large mammal walking transects with 72 sightings and 23 species recorded
- 6 hippo vehicle and 11 hippo walking transects counting a total of 3,359 hippos
- 28 new elephants were identified
- 11 primate surveys were conducted
- 27 orders of insects were identified with one being new for Vwaza Marsh Reserve, the Embioptera
- 72 new morpho species for Vwaza Marsh were also identified
- 60 bats from six different species were captured and released
- 69 camera traps were deployed during the expedition
- 49 species were caught on these cameras
- out of those species, three cat species had never before been recorded by conclusive camera trap images in Vwaza Marsh Reserve: lion, caracal and serval.
We leave you with lots of pictures and videos of the expedition. Thank you to Ng Kui Lai, Ida Vincent, Tom Bartel and John Haddon for sharing many of them.