Two wildlife organisations, including one headed by Prince Harry, have been accused of caring about animals more than people after three men died following an elephant translocation in Malawi.
In July, more than 250 elephants were moved from Liwonde national park in southern Malawi to the country’s second-largest protected area, Kasungu, in a three-way operation between Malawi’s national park service and the NGOs African Parks and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).
The translocation was among the largest of its kind ever attempted, according to the NGOs, which have since used images of the 263 elephants being transported for fundraising, with videos of the huge animals being lifted by crane described as “scenes reminiscent of the Disney classic Dumbo”.
But the promotional video and blog posts do not mention that two people in nearby communities were killed during the translocation by two bull elephants moved to Kasungu national park in July. A third person was killed by an elephant in September.
The Guardian has seen images of the men after they were trampled, and a community representative said that elephants and buffaloes had been straying into villages near the park, looking for food on farms and scaring villagers.
Malidadi Langa, chair of an association of villages near Kasungu national park, said Ifaw and the national park service had not finished building a fence to protect communities before moving the elephants. He said African Parks, whose president, the prince, has helped with previous translocations in Malawi, had rushed the movement of the animals.
“We welcomed the translocation of these elephants because it will improve tourism for Kasungu. But we believe they should have completed the fence first,” Langa said. “When they moved the first batch of elephants, within a week or so they had broken out of the park from the unfenced side and went into villages. One guy was killed. When we raised the issue, they said the elephants are disoriented and bound to get out of the park. Around the same week, an elephant killed someone else on the other side of the park.
“The irony is that Liwonde national park, from where the elephants came, which is run by African Parks, is fully fenced,” he said. “The experience has shown that these conservation agencies care more about animals than people.”
In a statement, Malawi’s national park service confirmed three men had died: Collins Chisi, 40, and Joseph Blackson, 29, in two separate incidents on 12 July, and John Kayedzeka, 30, who died on 16 September. They said in all of the deaths, community members had got too close to the animals while taking photos. Two bull elephants were shot dead in accordance with Malawian law after the first two incidents.
Langa said the families of those who died were facing uncertain futures, and urged the NGOs to provide continued financial support. He said they had been given a one-off payment of about $160 (£140).
Ifaw is understood to be exploring how to give more support to the families but disputed that there was an agreement with the community about a fence before the elephants were moved. The NGO said it had already funded the construction of 25 miles of fencing and had committed to repairing and extending a further 15 miles on the park’s eastern boundary, where the incident occurred.
“In all, 150 community members – including women – have been employed to work on the fence. A squad patrols the fence daily to ensure it remains unbreached and that any damage is swiftly repaired,” a spokesperson for Ifaw said.
“To prevent any further risk to the local communities, security has been enhanced with helicopter availability, rapid response rangers stationed at the extreme ends of the fence, and satellite-collared elephants monitored 24/7,” the spokesperson added. Support had been provided to the dead men’s families, including providing food, transport and coffins for the funerals.
The elephant population in Liwonde, where the elephants came from, had grown to nearly 600, causing damage to the park’s biodiversity and increasing the risk of human-elephant conflict in surrounding villages, according to African Parks.
To ease pressure on Liwonde the elephants were moved, along with buffalo, impala, sable, warthog and waterbuck, to Kasungu, which is four times the size and where the wildlife population has been depleted by poaching.
In a statement, African Parks rejected the suggestion that it had rushed the translocation and said it had been saddened by news of the deaths. It said after further reflection, it would be updating a blog post with information about the translocation and the dangers of conservation work.
“Human-wildlife conflict in a country like Malawi is very real and the impact on local people as a result of living in close proximity to dangerous animals like elephants can be significant,” a spokesperson said. “The park management continues to engage with local communities to learn from and improve efforts around human-wildlife conflict mitigation, including implementing an innovative approach to fencing which is proving more successful.
“While all parks managed by African Parks in Malawi are fenced, this is not a perfect solution and breakouts of elephants can and do still occur, resulting in a threat to human life and crops.”
The prince was not involved in this translocation with African Parks, it is understood.