Wildlife offences land culprits custodial sentences

Published in The Sunday Times Malawi on 15th February 2015

Written by Charles Mkoka

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It’s been a tough few weeks for wildlife criminals in Malawi.  In the past when a poacher found himself in court he would receive a small fine and a slap on the wrist.  These days he can expect jail.

In the past two weeks three defendants have appeared in the dock to answer charges of wildlife crime.  First, Ganizani Nkhata was caught having poached a serval cat in Kasungu National Park.  His crime was made worse by his rather foolish choice to kill an animal that had been rescued and released back into the wild, as part of a research programme run alongside the Department of National Parks and Wildlife.  He has been sentenced to prison for four years in default of being unable to pay a fine of MK450,000.  Analysts said that this set a precedent for future cases and they were proved right within the week.

Dixon Mzimba appeared in court in Lilongwe on Friday 6th February to answer charges on hunting with elephants and was sentenced to four years in jail.  Then on 10th February Gerald Lington was slapped with a MK40,000 fine for hunting with a rifle inside Thuma Forest Reserve, and will have to serve 18 months in prison if he cannot pay.  This fine is a ten fold increase on the MK4000 fine previously handed out by Salima courts in similar cases.

Still outstanding in the case of Dixon Mzimba is the charge of killing an elephant – one of Malawi’s flagship species so important for this country’s tourism, let alone its standing as one of God’s most majestic beasts currently threatened with extinction.  Whilst the argument stands up that some elephants that come into conflict with communities may need to be killed by the authorities, unlawful killing to personally profit from illegal wildlife artefacts at the expense of our natural heritage and economy is indefensible in this day and age.

Can Malawi stem this tide of destruction?  This year’s World Wildlife Day, celebrated here on 4th March, is themed ‘Let’s get serious about wildlife crime’ and preparations for this are well underway with key stakeholders hoping to make a big splash both here and around the world.  The law is certainly doing their bit by throwing the book at wildlife criminals and even looking to change the law to impose harsher sentences.  Before the interagency committee was set up, custodial sentences were extremely rare.  Working together with the government, local NGO’s like Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and Wildlife Action Group are working hard on wildlife protection through lobbying, campaigns and wildlife rescue.  International donors such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from the UK and their German counterparts, GIZ, are stepping forward with funding in support of the fight against wildlife crime.And there does seem to be a genuine attitudinal change and understanding from the general public that something needs to be done.  Let’s hope that in ten year’s time Malawi can stand tall as a destination of note, with protected areas teeming with wildlife and a flourishing tourism industry to match, and not a bare landscape void of what God gave us to protect.