Published in The Nation newspaper on 18th April 2015
Written by Lucky Mkandawire & Rebecca Chimjeka
While government uses armed game rangers to fight elephant poaching, the people committing the crime in and around Liwonde National Park have advised another way of killing the beasts softly- by poisoning them.
Although the extent of threat posed to the population of the elephants in the country’s second largest national park, bordering Machinga, Balaka and Mangochi cannto be ascertained, our investigationsindicate the trend has been thriving for a while.
Parks official say the first carcass of an elephant killed by poisoning was spotted with its tusks removed along the parks boundary in 2013.
“Since then, four elephants have been recorded as having poisoned and their ivory taken away,” Liwonde National Park Manager Blessings Msikuwanga said in an interview last week.
Added Msikuwanga : “ There could be more incident than reported because we have suspicions that other cases might have occurred but were not bought to our acknowledge.
“For us it depends on the number of carcass that we find and upon examinations if we don’t get a bullet or any wound on its body we conclude it to be poison.”
Since 2012, the park has also recorded five deaths due to wire snaring, one to gin trap and six to natural causes.
Malawi’s has a population of slightly over 1000 elephants, the majority of which are in Liwonde National Park.
The initial information Weekend Nation received was that communities were poisoning elephants because they cause destructions of crops, property and loss of life.
However, it turns the villagers are motivated by good monies from poachers believed to be from Mangochi, Blantyre, Salima, Lilongwe and Mozambique, among other places, to poison the elephants for their ivory.
During the visit, Weekend Nation discovered the poachers give the villagers a pinkish, pungent liquid – suspected to be sourced from Mozambique – which is delivered into small plastic tubes.
The poison is inserted into pumpkins or sprinkled on maize cobs and husks in the gardens. These are then strategically placed along elephant’s trails for their easy consumption.
A villager from Mangamba village, who declined to be identified disclosed that some people are offered as much as K50 000 to set the poison trap.
Several other from Mangamba and Chikuluma villages in Senior Chief Liwonde in Machinga also confirmed that poisoning of elephants is common in the area.
Just last week, a villager who was collecting pumpkins in the field discovered poison in one pumpkin and surrendered it to game rangers.
The poison was found in Wandi Village in the area of GVH Mangamba. Assistant parks and wildlife officer Finlay Zumba said a few months ago another pumpkin was discovered in Chilemba village in SGVH Chikuluma.
Explained Zumba: “ There are several way by which they use poison to bring down these mighty beasts. Sometimes they just stuff it in brad or discharge it in watering holes.
“ We sometimes notice carcass of other smaller wild animals like water bucks and we conclude it is poison when we find that the water colour has changed.”
Zumba said they have had no success in their attempts to apprehend poachers who use poison.
United Democratic Front MP for Balaka Central East Aufi Mpaweni said he had tried to raise an alarm about the situation with government “but nothing has been done”.
But director of parks and wildlife in the Ministry of Information, Tourism and Culture, Brighton Kumchedwa, said his department was investigating the matter.
He said the recent surge in the illicit killing of elephants was worrisome, particularly when the country was already pleading with stakeholders to help in fighting crime against wildlife.
He disclosed that Malawi is trying to tighten in park’s controls by initiating a 10-year Nation Elephant Action Plan under the Elephant Protection Initiative which aims to protect elephants and strengthen efforts to crack down the poachers and traffickers who have discovered Malawi as a soft target to export ivory from.
Recently, the government admitted that the country was being targeted and exploited as a source and transit route for wildlife traffickers.
Statistics indicate that between 2011 and 2014, police made 23 arrests at Kamuzu International Airpot in Lilongwe alone with 69 pieces of ivory.
Meanwhile, conservationists have urged government to be vigilant in the protection of elephants and other animals as poaching syndicates have become sophisticated.
Spokesman for Lilongwe wildlife trust Clement Manjaalera said: “ By 2025 there will be no elephants left if the current rate of poaching continues, and we cannot stand and let it happen.”
Last week, the Australian Customs and Boarder Protection Service intercepted 110kg of ivory allegedly en route to Malaysia from Malawi; an incident Minister of information Kondwani Nankhumwa said was being investigated. No arrests have been made.
Malawi confiscated a large haul of ivory last year worth about K3 billion, which was set to be incinerated two weeks ago but President Peter Mutharika postponed the exercise because there is more confiscated ivory whose cases are still in courts.
According to a 2011 Economic Evaluation of Sustainable Natural Resource Use, Malawi’s “average annual economic losses due to poaching [were made 2007] in the order of K1.2 billion ($8.4 million).”
Much of the demand for ivory is in Asia, particularly China, where it is primarily used for handicraft products and its rising demand is fuelling a renewed and horrific killing of elephants in Africa.
The United States is widely considered to be the world’s second-largest destination for illegally trafficking wildlife with the European Union coming in third.