Following the lifting of its Covid-related travel restrictions, Malawi has seen a six-fold uplift in interest from international volunteers seeking to support wildlife conservation efforts. The trend, reported by one of the country’s leading conservation organisations, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, confirms that Malawi is becoming a rising destination for global travellers and wildlife enthusiasts, following its inclusion earlier this year in the Lonely Planet’s ‘Top 10’ places to visit in 2022.
Although Africa’s tourism industry is taking longer to recover from the pandemic than other regions, demand for ecotourism and interactions with wildlife and nature is high amongst younger travellers who are seeking meaningful experiences that benefit the places, people and the wildlife they encounter. In recent years Malawi has made a name for itself as an emerging leader in conservation, with the Government introducing tough penalties for wildlife criminals and organisations like African Parks revitalising wildlife populations and habitats in the country’s national parks and protected areas. It is an exciting time for visitors and volunteers to Malawi to engage with conservation work.
Lilongwe Wildlife Trust’s placement programme offers experiences in sanctuary work, biodiversity research and wildlife medicine for students, volunteers and researchers across the world. Its programme was halted in 2020 by the imposition of Covid-related travel restrictions. As a result, Malawi’s only wildlife sanctuary, Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, experienced a 79% decline in voluntourism in 2020, resulting in a critical loss of manpower to care for the animals under its protection (the sanctuary supports around 200 animals on any given day, many of which have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade).
Since August 2021, when Malawi’s borders were fully opened to travellers with a negative PCR test, the sanctuary was again able to welcome international volunteers, and has seen a six-fold increase in comparison to the same period the year before, showing the huge demand for this type of travel (although bookings are still below pre-Covid rates overall).
During the pandemic, which saw 86,576 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Malawi, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust turned the quiet period into an opportunity for transformative plans to revitalise its site. After securing funding from a small group of donors – including the United Nations Development Programme, the Olsen Animal Trust and the International Fund for Animal Welfare – it developed brand new wildlife care facilities, new accommodation for volunteers and a new education centre for local school children.
The new sanctuary developments include a large veterinary centre – featuring a clinic, purpose-built lab and intensive care facilities – and new quarantine and enclosures for rescued animals. These improvements provide more space and better facilities for teaching both national and international students who can now come to Lilongwe Wildlife Centre to complete their extramural studies or pursue an interest in wildlife medicine.
Tom Mixer, Director of Operations at Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, said: “We are delighted to see growing interest in voluntourism in Malawi since the borders reopened – volunteers are absolutely critical to our work. Although the pandemic was devastating in many ways, it gave us time to invest in our operations and tailor our wildlife placements for the market, which is clearly seeking more sustainable and ethical ways of travelling. With Malawi listed in the top 10 destinations to visit by Lonely Planet this year, we hope that international volunteers will continue to see Malawi as an exciting option. The majority of our volunteers come from Europe and America so we are optimistic that – as confidence is rising in travellers – we will see more volunteers returning to support our efforts to save and protect wild animals in Malawi.”
Volunteer placements are now open for positions in sanctuary work, veterinary medicine and wildlife research. See more at www.lilongwewildlife.org/volunteer.