Biodiversity, Conservation, Field Rangers, K9 Unit, Malawi Zambia TFCA, Nyika National Park, Technology and Innovation, TFCAs, Wildlife Crime

Elevating Nyika: Flying High for Forests and Wildlife

The high plateau in Malawi’s Nyika National Park provides the arena for an ongoing cat and mouse game between poachers and rangers. There is no home advantage; poachers have the edge, with the barren terrain providing them with excellent visibility. They can spot rangers approaching from up to 3km away, which offers them ample time to evade and escape, constantly challenging wildlife-crime-fighting success rates. 

A helicopter has the power to change this, bringing eyes to the sky and unparalleled oversight across Nyika’s 3000 km2 expanse, including many enclaves where poachers have historically outplayed law enforcement. But despite the logic of coming at the problem from the air, deploying a helicopter is a costly and complex affair, needing to be fully justified as feasible and successful. The decision first demanded a proof-of-concept exercise in Nyika – a test phase to decide whether this plan can and should be brought to life. It raised critical, fundamental questions: how effective are current strategies in fighting crime that is threatening the park’s wildlife and forests, and how can an airborne response, given the altitude and often adverse climatic conditions, enhance measures already in play on the ground? 

See or be Seen…  

Beyond Nyika’s grassland plateau, the remaining 50% of the park’s area is extremely rugged country, with no road infrastructure to access poaching hotspots concealed by dense montane forests and high canopy woodlands.

The eastern escarpment suffers a long-running problem of magnificent trees being cut down and sliced into planks – all by hand to avoid noise detection – then carried out over steep terrain. Poachers are both skilled and incredibly fit. Here, successes in apprehending forest crime have been largely compromised.

Norman English, Peace Parks’ Counter-Poaching Coordinator in Nyika National Park
Nika’s dense and verdant forests are biodiversity havens, from baobabs to miombo woodland – habitats which host their own pockets of precious and unique species. Not only do these riches tempt poachers into the area but also, due to thick tree cover, illegal forest crime is easily concealed, allowing escape and evasion without the benefits of aerial surveillance.

Nyika is particularly vulnerable to poaching, being surrounded by high density, impoverished and subsistence farming populations, driving natural resource utilisation. The park is permeable and the origin of a surprisingly long trafficking chain, with some wildlife and plant products, such as orchids, travelling as far as Kenya and Tanzania.  

A major benefit of the aircraft is that frequent aerial surveillance of the area works to deter people from attempting to get in. It also facilitates a rapid reaction response and greatly improves access to hard-to-reach areas. It provides ground teams out on foot patrols with much needed support from the air, which boosts confidence in their own abilities to apprehend.  

Soon after deploying the helicopter, an illegal logging site was pinpointed; a further four were then discovered and rangers and tracker dogs were able to be guided in. Subsequent flights revealed another 15 inactive sites, where tools and planks were found.

Illegal logging in Nyika’s forests is a monumental feat by poachers. Trees are felled and planks cut manually, then carried out by hand over rough terrain. A helicopter significantly increases the chances of identifying these crime sites, raising success rates in apprehension and reducing deforestation.

Nyika’s Natural Treasures 

Nyika’s desirability to poachers is matched by its immense and unique value, harbouring astonishing biological diversity and providing vital natural resources to local communities. Shrouded in clouds, the highlands are home to large numbers of antelope and plains game, four of the Big Five and other flagship species. Tree-lined valleys boast baobabs and miombo forest, a habitat for many species and a vital carbon sink. More than 200 species of orchid are found exclusively here, under great threat from human exploitation in being harvested and sold illegally. At over 2500 m, altitude and annual rainfall are high, and temperatures low – important factors determining which helicopter is ideally suited for the challenging job. Significantly Nyika, meaning “where the water comes from”, is one of Malawi’s most important catchment areas, with an estimated 10% on the Malawi side sustaining hundreds of thousands of households. 

The grasslands of the montane and beautiful Nyika plateau are home to large numbers of antelope – such as the magnificent eland – and plains game, four of the Big Five and other flagship species. This region is serviced by a handful of roads, allowing tourists to experience this part of the park. Elsewhere, accessibility is hugely compromised – off-limits to visitors and extremely hard to reach for rangers and tracker dogs.

The Bigger Counter-Poaching Picture 

The four-week test phase shone a light on both shortfalls and strengths.

This was an invaluable exercise from that point of view, a wake-up call. The pressure on our rangers, working with dogs, to adapt to operations with a helicopter is huge. It highlighted the importance of specialised training and discipline needed to get the greatest possible aerial advantage.

Norman English

The power of coordinated efforts was equally clear. The park’s canine anti-poaching unit in combination with the helicopter proved essential in boosting success: without tracker dogs, apprehension rates were markedly lower. In total during the month’s trial, ten poachers were arrested; Nyika’s monthly average up to this point was six arrests, translating to an increase in arrests of 66.6% whilst the helicopter was in use. This was a notable justification for investing in the aircraft as a permanent asset, allowing a surface-to-air rapid response approach, and calling on the capabilities of the canine unit taking instruction from the helicopter crew.  

Nyika’s field rangers, who are also highly skilled dog handlers, discussing vital tactics with their canine anti-poaching team members. Tracker dogs are an essential asset on the frontlines of conservation in the park; with rangers at their side, they can be guided into crime sites thanks to critical intel from the helicopter crew.

Within such a brief test phase, opportunities to explore the helicopter’s broader capabilities were limited – but there are multiple applications that could benefit the park, and the efficiency and safety of the teams based there. These uses are already operative and proving their worth in other protected areas within Peace Parks’ footprint: aerial censuses, crucial to long-term species population monitoring, and mitigation of conflict between local communities and wildlife by being able to track movements likely to cause coexistence clashes. In addition, rapid response and evacuation in the case of medical emergencies in such remote areas would be an invaluable safeguard.

When the day came to wave goodbye to their fleeting airborne asset, there was confidence that crucial points had been proven: the tangible advantages of a helicopter in protecting landscape and wildlife, and in motivating excellence in counter-poaching personnel and systems. The next two to three years will see park staff developing a sophisticated programme hoped to integrate helicopter deployment with a new focus on training and key infrastructure: radio systems, vehicle fleets and remote sensing technology, to enable the targeting of poaching hotspots from the ground and the air.  

This place could be the Serengeti in the mountains, it’s full of potential. The motivation to protect Nyika is great, and it drives us to do whatever it takes.

Norman English

The prospect of a helicopter playing a high-flying part in this future ambition is a promising one.  

Nyika’s vast but vulnerable landscape brims with biodiversity, with the cloud-shrouded plateau offering tourists an unparalleled spectacle. Protecting every corner and asset in the park is motivating the team’s best efforts to combat wildlife and forest crime. Adding an airborne strategy to the picture is full of potential…

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Annual Review 2022

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