As the only wildlife centre in Malawi, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust is at the forefront of today’s wildlife crime and conservation efforts – elephants and rhinos are being targeted for their tusks and horns all across Africa but nowhere more than here in Malawi, often referred to as the warm heart of Africa, and the poorest country in the world according to World Bank.
Indiscriminate snaring is also responsible for the main bulk of call outs as well as illegal trading in wildlife – on average 3,500 snares are removed from national parks in Malawi each month. The pressure is mounting but fortunately thanks to collaborative efforts teams are now on hand to help.
Mounting reports of wildlife injured by poachers resulted in the creation of the Wildlife Emergency Response Unit (or WERU), first launched in January 2014. The main aim is to provide fast, professional and cost-effective in-situ treatment for wildlife emergencies across Malawi.
WERU Project Director, Dr Amanda Salb, is the only veterinarian in Malawi qualified for large game capture. In fact she heads up the only all-female wildlife emergency team in Malawi. In 2015 alone, the team responded to 31 call outs including rhino, elephant, hyena and serval to name but a few.
Salb explains what it’s like to head up the only all-female WERU unit in Malawi and shares her hopes and vision for the future.
What is it like to head up the only all-female WERU team in what is deemed the poorest country in the world?
Well, you know, the majority of vet students in North America and Europe today are women, so the field is gradually changing. That being said, the majority of wildlife vets here in Africa are men. I’m fortunate to have had a lot of support from project partners and collaborators in Malawi and from veterinary mentors and colleagues from across Africa and the world. Vets from South Africa have been especially supportive of the work I do here.
Despite being the poorest country in the world, Malawi also has a lot to offer. Often referred to as ‘the warm heart of Africa’, Malawi is also the safest country to travel and work in. Working collectively, with little or no budget, is therefore common practice which can be very rewarding.
What does your ‘average’ day entail?
Oh man, ‘average day’ doesn’t even enter my vernacular. On any given day I might be driving to a field site, sitting in meetings, hiking out into the bush to look for an animal or to figure out the best way to approach a capture, or working with volunteers/staff teaching vet medicine at Lilongwe Wildlife Trust sanctuary.
There’s a lot of time in the field tracking and waiting for the right opportunity. It’s not all about rescuing animals, everyone expects ‘drama’ but that’s not what it’s all about.
Working collectively and facilitating research and rescue is also of paramount importance to me.
It can be a very stressful job – you only feel relief at the end of a successful call-out.
WERU call-out examples include collaring resident hyenas (in conjunction with the Carnivore Research Malawi), de-snaring an elephant (alongside African Parks), rescuing a serval caught in a drain or a hyena roaming the Presidency’s garden…
What are the highs and the lows?
Not surprisingly, the highs tend to be related to being able to successfully help an animal, working successfully with a team and the fact that my job requires me to be out and about in the national parks of Malawi.
The highs: excellent team effort, we get the job done, and the animal has a better chance of survival.
The lows: seeing the animal in pain and suffering as a direct result of human and animal conflict, knowing that there are animals out there that need help but you can’t locate them easily.
When I am out in the field for days at a time but don’t actually get to capture the target animal, it tends to be a bit discouraging to say the least.
For me when I look at what I do it’s all about working as part of team, whether that’s working for an organisation such as the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, an organisation and its values that I personally respect and believe in. Being able to work as a team with various different researchers and national park scouts, all working towards one common goal, to get the job done successfully is my ultimate achievement.
Working in a beautiful location – the national parks in Malawi are breath-taking – this too gives me huge personal satisfaction.
I have to say I enjoy my job 100% – there isn’t anything else I would rather be doing – largely because of the people I work with and the various animal species I get to help.
What you would like to see happen next?
My hope for the future here in Malawi is that the WERU programme is finally recognised as a valuable contribution to wildlife management and conservation in Malawi and a permanent position is created within national government. It is a goal that is shared by my vet and wildlife colleagues here, so I’m convinced we’ll get there.
Government bureaucracy in Malawi is frustrating. So the need to find a permanent position and not a ‘stop gap’ is vital for the future and preservation of Malawi’s wildlife and landscape.
Do you have any advice to any budding conservationists, researchers and veterinary staff?
My advice is that if you are genuinely passionate about wildlife conservation you need to ‘make it happen’.
There are two different kinds of opportunity in wildlife conservation; for the unskilled visitors you can sign up to a volunteer programme which is very rewarding. For example visit www.lilongwewildlife.org for more details about their first-class ‘hands off’ volunteering programme. These sorts of ‘working holidays’ will without doubt change your life and perspective on things.
For skilled visitors such as vets and vet nurses, I would suggest getting as much experience as you can before you actually come to Africa – just get involved at every level you can.
My best advice is also share your expertise and skills especially expertise that can actively build capacity and fulfil a need.
Come to Africa with an open mind (and an open heart), it shouldn’t be about fulfilling your ‘bucket list’ but more about sharing a conservation organisation’s vision for the future and fulfilling capacity.
Where to now?
I have no plans – I’m happy to follow any adventure that presents itself.
As Malawians like to say: “Pang’ono pang’ono, tsokonombwe anatha mtunda mkudumpha…” which means slowly, slowly you’ll get there, by opening your mind and taking your time you can achieve anything.