Published in The Sunday Times on 4th January 2015

By Sophie Gomani 


Unless government takes drastic measures to protect the animals, Malawi will have no elephants by 2025.  Current statistics indicate that elephant numbers in Malawi have dropped by 50 per cent since the 1980s, from 4,000 to about 2,000. And as government plans to carry out a new national elephant survey, there are growing fears that the actual figures might be even lower.

Notable locations such as Liwonde and Vwaza National parks reportedly have the highest number of elephants, between 600 and 700 collectively.Kasungu National Park has less than 100 elephants left. This is largely due to the continuous slaughter of elephants for their ivory, a very expensive commodity that is smuggled out of the country and traded illegally on Asian markets.

It is estimated that the price of ivory on the black market is US$2,200 per kg in East Asia. According to the World Elephant Day website, an estimated 100 African elephants are killed each day by poachers seeking ivory. Africa now has about 400,000 elephants left.

In Malawi, elephants are protected animals and largely live in protected areas such as national parks and game reserves. Elephants are also a major source of revenue for the nation as they attract tourists form all the over world who want to come face to face with the majestic creature.Unfortunately, the animals also attract some destructive people who are bent on killing the elephants for their precious tusks, using crude methods.

The Department of National Parks and Wildlife says poachers use disabling techniques such as trapping the elephant in large pits or using poisoned baits like fruits, pumpkins, water and maize husks.They also use man-made weapons such as the muzzle loading gun as well as modern guns, including rifles, to kill elephants.

The ivory is usually processed into ornaments such as necklaces, bangles and other trinkets. The ornaments are then smuggled abroad where wealthy ivory collectors and traders purchase them.Smugglers often elude authorities by concealing the ivory in travel bags using duvets or thick clothes or inside wood curios, shaped as block boards packaged in hidden seals or mixed with other different shaped consignments to conceal the shape of the ivory.

The increasing demand for ivory products has propelled the formation of organised international crime syndicates that are highly advanced and very tactical. Malawi is one of the countries hit hard by poaching and illegal ivory trade. Although government issued a ban on ivory trade in the country, numerous elephants are still being slaughtered and their ivory making its way across its borders. The country’s high poverty levels and weak law enforcement have made Malawi an easy target for the crime syndicates.Although several arrests have been made, many people found in possession of illegal ivory are usually given very small fines and since Illegal ivory trade is very profitable, culprits are able to pay the fine and avoid prison sentences.

Director for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, Brighton Kumchedwa, says his department is aware of the challenges the country is facing in protecting the elephant. “We would like to assure the public that government has not sat idle and is doing everything possible to ensure that elephants are protected,” says Kumchedwa. He adds: “With support from the German Government, we will be carrying out an assessment of our wildlife laws with the possibility of amending the legislation to make poaching and wildlife trafficking serious crimes warranting stiffer punishments to help deter would-be offenders.”

Neverson Chisiza, Senior State Advocate in the Ministry of Justice, explains that the major problem is that wildlife and environmental crimes have always been regarded as minor offences and have never been prosecuted at the high court. “Luckily, we are quickly embracing global village values and starting to see wildlife crimes as serious criminal offences. “For the first time, we are prosecuting a suspect in the High Court of Malawi in a case involving 781 pieces of ivory transited from Tanzania,” says Chisiza.

Government has also formed an inter-agency committee to combat wildlife crime, according to Kumchedwa. The committee comprises different government agencies including the police, immigration, the judiciary, the Malawi Defense Force, Anti- Corruption Bureau and Financial Intelligence Unit, and wildlife civil society organisations and the media. “The main objective of the committee is to enhance information sharing among the stakeholders. Through this committee, we have made several arrests and have also helped quicken court procedures to ensure that culprits are brought to justice,” Kumchedwa says.

He says in line with the Clinton initiative, Malawi banned domestic ivory trade and is planning to destroy all stockpiles of seized ivory. “We recently partnered with the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and the Born Free Foundation to launch the country’s biggest Stop Wildlife Crime campaign,” says Kumchedwa. “Through this campaign, we have been able to raise awareness about wildlife crime through sensitisation talks, TV and radio shows, and have raised billboards in various strategic locations including major transit points in the country.”

In order to raise the profile of elephants in the country, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, the Wildlife and Environmental Society and Wildlife Action Group of Malawi, on 3 October 2014 organised the first ever elephant march in Lilongwe. The group marched to government offices were they delivered a petition calling for, among other things, the amendment of the current wildlife laws and destruction of a stockpile of confiscated ivory.

Spokesperson for the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, Victoria Mopiwa, says the trust is happy with government’s commitment to end illegal wildlife trade. “We commend government for their decision to destroy its stockpiles of seized ivory. We believe this is a step in the right direction as it will send a clear message to the international community that Malawi is committed to upholding its ban on ivory trade. “However, the fight against illegal wildlife trade does not solely rest with government. Communities, local NGOs and companies all need to join hands and realise that these elephants might not be around for long. This is the only way we can end ivory trade before it’s too late,” says Mopiwa.