By Dr. Amanda Salb, Head Veterinarian
The year 2020 was a year like no other, as the COVID-19 pandemic tested individuals, organisations, governments and nations in ways previously unimaginable.
Much has been written about the devastating impacts of COVID on conservation, given the heavy dependency of this sector on tourism dollars. Like many other conservation organisations and wildlife sanctuaries across the world, the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre faced a number of difficult challenges – not least a sharp fall in income.
There have been few other times that I have felt as proud of my team as in the aftermath of the COVID outbreak.
The large majority of our unrestricted funding comes from an international placement programme which offers students, researchers and members of the public from around the world the opportunity to come and work with our team of leading veterinarians and wildlife specialists. As international travel restrictions and border closures swept the globe in March and April, our placement programme ground to a halt – and with it, the funding that so much of our wildlife rescue and welfare work depends on. Elsewhere, other tragic repercussions included a rise in poaching of wild animals as economic hardship pushed people into criminal activity.
There have been few other times that I have felt as proud of my team as in the aftermath of the COVID outbreak. The Centre went swiftly into lockdown, operating with two skeleton teams of staff who lived and worked on site in six-week rotations to make sure the 200+ animals in our care continued to be fed, treated and rehabilitated. For some people, this meant leaving their families for weeks on end.
Difficulties in accessing our normal animal feed supplies meant we had to get creative with meal times; we soon learned that nsima-soy balls are particularly popular among older primates. Some staff took on additional duties, opening our eyes to new ways of using skills. Our integrations coordinator, for example, started helping out with animal rescues. Because much of his day-to-day integrations role involves carefully observing and analysing primate behaviour, he knew exactly how to read the body language of a baboon that had wandered into a busy urban marketplace, which meant he could safely catch and trap it with minimal stress.
Our head office team were equally as dedicated, working tirelessly to draw up new plans, budgets and protocols to help the organisation weather the storm. And then, of course, there was you. In April 2020 we launched an emergency fundraising appeal to help raise donations for the Centre. We were overwhelmed by the response. Within weeks we had raised over £12,000 – an incredible amount. To each and every one of you, whether you donated £1 or £1000, thank you! It is no exaggeration to say that your support has made all the difference.
In addition to this, our long-standing donors and partners went above and beyond to help us – whether by honouring their existing commitments, despite facing considerable financial difficulties of their own, or by allowing us to use grants flexibly to cover shortfalls where the need was most urgent. To them we are hugely grateful. We were also lucky enough to form partnerships with a handful of amazing new funders who extended emergency grants to our rescue centre during the most challenging months of the year – a true testament to the power of the donor community.
Indeed, it is thanks to our amazing community of donors, partners and staff that we are closing what has been one of the most turbulent years on a relatively stable footing. Looking beyond our own immediate circle, it is also encouraging to see that governments and communities alike are realising the need to ‘build back better’ – to invest in solutions to the pandemic that are environmentally sustainable, resilient and equitable. Nowhere is this more pressing than in a country like Malawi, where the precarious cycle of environmental degradation poses a real and urgent threat to human development.
I am looking ahead to 2021 with cautious optimism. Thank you for supporting us in 2020 – I hope you will stay with us on our journey.