The thing that drew me to Malawi was its wildlife, so when I chose to volunteer a month of my time at Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, I had planned on feeding monkeys and cleaning out lion enclosures. Instead I spent my time researching the unique relationship between the wildlife of Malawi, its potential to grow out of poverty and how the illegal wildlife trade in ivory is destroying both these futures.
Wildlife crime is second only to habitat loss in terms of its threat to wildlife, and is the biggest threat to the survival of species like the elephant and rhino. Elephants are targeted for their ivory tusks, which are invariably sent to Eastern markets where they are carved into ornaments or jewellery for the wealthy. Sadly the illegal ivory trade could lead to the extinction of elephants – by some estimates there could be none left in the wild by 2025 if current rates of poaching continue.
With ten out of the twelve southern and eastern African states counting wildlife-based tourism as their primary or fastest growing economy, the damage that the illegal ivory trade is doing cannot be overemphasised. It is the biggest threat to endangered animals of our time, the same animals that tourists flock and spend millions of pounds annually to see. It threatens the stability of nations, with ivory traffickers being closely connected to gun, people and drug trafficking and deepening endemic corruption.
The trade in ivory cannot be treated as only a conservation issue but a political and economic one.
However the position of Malawi in this struggle has been unique and sadly neglected. With the second smallest elephant population in the region, it has often been overlooked by anti-poaching organisations. However the publication of the Illegal Wildlife Trade assessment, in May of this year, provided crucial evidence that Malawi is a key link in the trade for processing and onward trafficking due to its geographical location, weak border controls and lack of sufficient penalties.
There could be no better example of this than the ‘Mzuzu’ case, which came to its conclusion during my stay. In July 2015, the Mzuzu case saw 2 brothers guilty of trafficking 2.6 tonnes of Ivory from Tanzania fined only $5,500 dollars each. Although this is the highest penalty Malawi has given for such a crime it provides little deterrent based on a reward risk rationale, it does not match up with the United Nations convention ruling that trafficking of ivory should be punished as a serious crime and is far behind neighbouring countries legal efforts. Only a month later Kenya fined two brothers nearly $1 million for 18kg of Ivory.
This case shows Malawi is in need of help but not lost of hope. There is a mounting political commitment to fight the trade. Malawi’s President, H.E. Peter Mutharika, has pledged zero tolerance on wildlife criminals and 7,000 signatures were collected in support of the Government’s commitments. Leading international charities and development partners such as IFAW and GIZ are stepping up to support more anti-trafficking projects. African Parks, known for their successful eco-tourism models coupled with exceptional wildlife management and anti-poaching efforts, have taken over two more key protected areas. I witnessed first hand Lilongwe Wildlife Trust’s work supporting the formation of a Parliamentary Conservation Caucus, the revision of the Wildlife Act and the introduction of sniffer dogs at the airports.
The organisations willing to commit to combatting wildlife crime, coupled with the domestic and international political will needed to enforce and increase legislation are both present in Malawi, but these must be bound together to ensure that on the ground disasters, like the Mzuzu Case, cannot happen again.
I have been a volunteer, a tourist and a researcher in this wonderful country and in every aspect I have seen potential for it to grow but so much of this will rely on tourism which in turn needs wildlife. Justice for Malawi cannot be without justice for its wildlife.