Published in Malawi News on Saturday 3rd May 2015
Written by Sophie Gomani
Due to the global ban on ivory trade, Malawi is not allowed to sell its ivory stockpiles; therefore making them of no economic value to the country.
However as a result of increase in demand of ivory on the illegal Market, Malawi is forced to take costly precautionary measures to ensure that the ivory is secure from illegal traders.
According to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, Malawi is in possession of approximately 4 tons of ivory seized over the years from poachers, smugglers and illegal ivory traders.
Due to this high demand on the illegal market, Dixie Makwale, Officer of Wildlife Education and Environment in the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) says the cost of securing the stockpiles against theft is a significant burden to Government.
“With such a high demand of ivory in the far east, keeping it possess a major security risk because there are criminals who do not respect the law and will target the stockpiles for their own ends.
“So in order to tighten security we are forced to post park ranger and police officers at the site; park rangers who could have been deployed to protected areas to aid in cracking down poaching activities,” he explains.
Makwale further explains that low levels of security surveillance and inability to counter poaching activities have made it a target for commercial elephant poachers.
“Shortage of wildlife Officers in the country has also greatly affected efforts to curb poaching in the country as Government is unable to fully patrol protected areas,” he said.
As a result Malawi’s elephant population has dropped drastically from 4000 to 2000 in the past two decades.
Realising that the killing of elephants for their ivory was putting the survival of elephant species at risk, a global agreement called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989 banned all trade in ivory.
But despite the ban, there has still been an increase in demand for ivory on the illegal trade which has led to the formation of organised poaching rings.
Globally, about 25,000 elephants are estimated to be killed every year for their ivory tusks.
Over the years, there have been several attempts by the global community to reduce demand of ivory by increasing supply such as in 1997 and 2008 when countries were allowed to sell their stockpiles of ivory legally.
However, rather than reducing demand, the sales allowed traders and poachers to smuggle illegal ivory into the legal market.
Instead of weakening the illegal market and thus reducing the poaching pressure on elephants, the influx of the legal but more expensive ivory provided a means for laundering illegal ivory while simultaneously increasing demand for the unlawful supply.
In February, 2014 during the London Conference of illegal wildlife trade, Malawi together with representatives from 46 other countries and 11 international organisations agreed that rather than allowing countries to sell their ivory they should ban domestic trade in ivory, as well as destroy of ivory stockpiles.
Since then, countries from all over the world have started to comply and have begun publicly destroying their stockpiles of seized Ivory.
Thus Malawi’s destruction of the ivory is with accordance to the London Conference on illegal trade according to Makwale.
“We believe that elephants are not a commodity that can be harvested for profits as such we have to do everything possible to preserve their existence,” explains Makwale.
Despite members of the general public opposing the burn, major stake holders and wildlife organisations have welcomed the idea.
Clement Manjaalera, spokesman for Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, commends Malawi for taking the step calling it a bold move that symbolises a trailblazing country stepping up the fight against wildlife crime. “However it is disappointing that coverage in the media has focused on short-sighted arguments regarding value of ivory on an illegal market,” says Manjaalera adding; “The elephant crisis has now surpassed its tipping point and attitudes worldwide must change in order to save the species.”
He further argues that selling the ivory, which is illegal in itself, would mean evading an international law consequently reinforcing Malawi’s reputation of corruption in the light of Cashgate. A legal sale will never be an option for Malawi, since CITES would never allow it given the provenance of the ivory and the decline in the country’s populations.
She also states that it would mean deterring the international wildlife community from stepping in to support the country.
“Selling the confiscated ivory can be compared to taking a stash of confiscated marijuana (Indian hemp) and deciding not to destroy it but to sell it back into the market.
“It will likely de-value wildlife in relation to its importance to tourism and thus its contribution to the economy,” explains Manjaalera.
An independent study conducted by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust recently put a price on a single elephant’s head in terms of its value to tourism – estimated to be 76 times that of the value of its ivory on illegal markets.
The study revealed that a single living elephant drives tens of thousands of dollars in tourism-related revenues along a whole chain of people from the lodge waiter and local rural tradesmen through to the car rental companies and the aviation industry.
It concludes that alive, elephants benefit local communities and economies. But dead, they benefit criminal and even terrorist groups.
In his turn, Elesani Zakochera, Senior Education officer for Wildlife Environmental Society of Malawi (WESM), says it is high time Malawians stopped concentrating more on the value of the ivory but on the availability of elephants in the country.
“Malawi has approximately 1500 elephants and unless we take drastic measures there will not be any elephants left.
“As Malawians we all have a role to play in ensuring that people have accurate information regarding the matter, we must not let other people who only seek to destroy these majestic creatures to influence our opinion,” he says.
If Malawi destroys its stockpile of ivory it will become the fifth country in Africa to do so behind Kenya, Ethiopia Gabon and now Congo, and the first SADC country this century.