Originally published on National Geographic, 30th April 2015
Written by Jonathan Vaughan
Despite clear assurances from President Peter Mutharika himself that the burn will go ahead following the conclusion of an outstanding court case, the decision caused heated debate. Social media and online chat forums set alight, with calls to cash in on the “millions” that Malawi could make from selling its ivory.
But the vast majority of commentators missed the point, because, quite simply, the ivory in question is worth nothing to Malawi. To be sold, it would have to be laundered illegally, breaking international law.
A Sale Would Break More Than Law
Malawi has been a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1982. Under CITES, international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989.
Selling Malawi’s ivory would therefore be no different from taking a haul of confiscated cocaine and deciding not to destroy it but to sell it back into the black market.
At the same time a sale, by breaking several signed declarations, would negate much of the recent work done by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) to galvanize international support.
Malawi has further upped its game in the fight against wildlife crime by taking an active role in talks that have led to international collaboration. During the past two years, three declarations have been signed that have committed Malawi to a hard line against the ivory trade.
The most recent was the Elephant Protection Initiative, which incorporates a commitment to reject the ivory trade for a minimum of ten years—and thereafter until African elephant populations are no longer threatened. This includes the closure of domestic ivory markets and a moratorium on any consideration of future international trade, as well as a pledge to destroy ivory stockpiles.
A Sale Is Not an Option for Malawi
Some have argued for inaction, for storage until a later date when markets may once again become legal. But that prospect seems highly unlikely. CITES has only ever entertained allowing ivory sales for countries that have adequate data to prove that their elephant populations are either stable or increasing.
Malawi has scant data and an elephant population presumed to be declining rapidly, so applying for a legal international ivory sale would be futile. A previous application by Malawi was rejected in 2003 for these very reasons.
What’s more, even if Malawi could make progress on both of these fronts, ivory to be considered for sale would have to come from legal culls or animals that have died of natural causes. Only a fraction of Malawi’s stockpile consists of this “legal” ivory, the vast majority having been confiscated from traffickers and poachers.
So while there are humanitarian and wildlife-related causes in Malawi that cry out for investment, channeling ivory proceeds into the economy isn’t an option: The only people who would profit would be criminals.
Since the 1989 CITES trade ban, two one-off ivory sales have been allowed. CITES is highly unlikely to entertain additional one-off legal sales by any countries, given that these acts have been held responsible for the unprecedented increase in poaching worldwide.
Knowing the negative impact that trade in ivory can have, we should surely want no part of it.
Living Elephants Will Drive Malawi’s Economic Growth
Our elephant numbers may be smaller, at around 1,500, than that of our neighbors, but our populations are still viable and deserving of protection.
Elephant viewings still pull in safari tourists, who have no trouble spotting herds of elephants in the likes of Liwonde and Majete—and tourism itself represents a big economic opportunity for Malawi.
While other African countries are suffering from the fallout of Ebola scares and terrorism threats, Malawi is benefiting from its reputation as a safe, friendly country. That, coupled with a diverse natural heritage—notably elephants—has helped place Malawi in CNN’s and Lonely Planet’s top ten must-see destinations in 2015.
One recent study by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust assessed the tourism value of a single live elephant at some 1.6 million dollars—more than 76 times the value of its ivory in death.
The opportunity tourism represents to Malawi has not gone unnoticed by the government, which has identified the industry as one of the pillars for economic growth.
If Malawi’s economy needs tourism, and tourism needs wildlife, then prioritizing wildlife protection through a “total war” on wildlife crime is a wise financial move.
The biodiversity value of elephants is a topic for another day, but suffice it to say that biodiversity losses from elephant declines would have a catastrophic effect on agriculture and human health in one of the world’s poorest nations: Malawi ranks 174 out of 187 on the United Nation’s Human Development Index.
The High Cost of Poaching
Wildlife crime robs the country of its natural capital and cultural heritage, undermining the livelihoods of communities dependent on natural resources (the majority of the country’s 16.5 million citizens), damaging the health of the ecosystems we depend on, and undermining sustainable economic development, such as tourism.
Malawi’s economy loses an estimated 8.4 million dollars each year to poaching, which in general is no longer for subsistence—“the pot.”
Ivory trafficking worldwide is estimated to have tripled in the past ten years, and the illegal trade is becoming highly militarized, with an estimated 90 percent of trafficking profits ending up in the hands of organized criminal syndicates and terrorist groups.
In Malawi, local commercial trade for bush meat and traditional medicines on the black market is now prevalent, with poaching of certain species—especially elephants—controlled by syndicates.
In Liwonde National Park, Operation Safe Haven collected more than 3,500 wire snares, confiscated 17 poaching boats, 10 gin traps, and 7 spears between November 2014 and February 2015. More than 30 arrests were made during that time.
In its heyday, Kasungu National Park teemed with so much wildlife that animals were sent to South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park. Kasungu’s estimated 2,000-strong elephant population in the 1980s has plummeted to just 58 individuals in 2013. A recent aerial survey undertaken in 2014 counted fewer than 40. This decline is attributed to ivory poaching.
While poaching at current rates threatens our own elephant populations with local extinction, Malawi is also implicated in regional declines. This is because the country serves as a regional transit route and distribution hub for international ivory traffickers.
The recent illegal wildlife trade assessment highlights just how vulnerable the country is to exploitation by traffickers operating between Malawi and the surrounding countries of Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique.
Ivory Stockpile a Security Burden
Keeping ivory in storage also represents a major security risk to Malawi, as thieves and corrupt individuals could target the stockpile for their own ends, leaking contraband ivory back into an illegal market.
The cost of securing the stockpile against theft is a significant burden to the government at a time when budgets for wildlife conservation are very limited.
If all or some of the ivory goes “missing,” Malawi’s reputation would be irretrievably tarnished, as the amount of our stockpiled ivory has been independently audited. The world knows exactly how much is held, down to the pound. The last thing the country needs is another corruption scandal making international headlines.
Conversely, destruction of the ivory stockpile would signify a very public stand against both the ivory trade and corruption. It also removes the security risk and releases funds for anti-poaching efforts out in the field.
Debate Raises Profile of Malawi’s Wildlife
The initial news of Malawi’s intent to destroy its ivory was met with praise for the bold move that it symbolized, reflecting a trailblazing country stepping up its fight against wildlife crime. (On April 29, the Republic of Congo destroyed its 4.7-tonnes of stockpiled ivory, and the United Arab Emirates pulverized more than ten tonnes of contraband ivory.)
The negativity that followed the postponement decision—voiced by pro-traders and government antagonists—was disheartening, but the ensuing debate has had its positives.
Awareness of the need to stop wildlife crime and protect Malawi’s wildlife is clearly on the increase. Elephants are now front page news, and the world at large is paying more attention to a country previously overlooked in some wildlife circles.
Support from the Very Top
Disappointment over the burn postponement notwithstanding, the wildlife day commemorations on April 2 were a colorful demonstration of the highest political will to address Malawi’s wildlife crisis.
Indeed, it was the first time any president in the history of Malawi had attended a wildlife event of its kind.
Resolve is high, and the pledge to burn the ivory stockpile is just one of a number of measures specified to combat wildlife crime.
Only last week, President Mutharika was praised for his commitments to conservation when he attended the International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF) dinner in Washington, D.C.
Upon returning home, he said, “I warn all poachers, ivory smugglers, and those who destroy wildlife that this is now war; your time is over.”
International Support Vital To Save Malawi’s Elephants
Additional funds would be an especially welcome development for DNPW, which is under-resourced to confront the mounting challenges. Unfortunately, the government is currently in no financial position to increase wildlife budgets.
Transnational cooperation is key in the fight against wildlife crime—intelligence sharing as well as financial and technical support. Given the government’s lack of resources in general, international support from the likes of Malawi’s development partners—British, German, and American—is all the more important.
This is key not only for wildlife rangers—our front line law enforcers, who are risking their lives on the ground—but also for strengthening law enforcement along the whole chain, including police, customs, and the judiciary.
And a United Front At Home…
Given Malawi’s lack of resources, coupled with its historically weak law enforcement and a reputation for corruption, everyone involved is well aware of the challenge ahead.
But because this is a small country, cooperation and collaboration among government, NGOs, and local communities can make a difference.
The results are beginning to show. The past year has seen stiffer sentences for ivory poachers, formalized interagency cooperation in pursuit of wildlife criminals, and review of wildlife acts and corresponding commitments to substantially strengthen laws.
The continued expansion of the African Parks public-private partnership is one of the most promising recent alliances to protect Malawi’s wildlife, and a growing number of international NGOs are stepping up to support those of us on the ground.
Elephants in Sierra Leone and Senegal have already gone extinct, and we will all work to the utmost to prevent Malawi from appearing on that list in the next decade.
What’s clear is that any form of ivory trade involving Malawi would undermine efforts to prevent this economic and ecological disaster from occurring.
Putting its confiscated ivory out of economic use by destroying it will be a prudent move by Malawi. Elephants are not a commodity to be harvested for their tusks.