Malawi is known as the Warm Heart of Africa because of its friendly, peaceful people. But it is also one of the poorest countries in the world and has one of the fastest growing populations in Africa, placing natural resources under immense pressure.
Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT)’s story started in 2008 when they opened Malawi’s only wildlife sanctuary, primarily for victims of the bushmeat and pet trade. They remain the Government’s key wildlife rescue and rehabilitation partner, running their Wildlife Emergency Response Unit for cases such as snared elephants and rhino, as well as heading Malawi’s largest conservation education programme which directly engages over 45,000 learners across the country.
Today, by far their largest area of work is combatting serious wildlife crime. LWT co-authored the Illegal Wildlife Trade Review published in 2015, which exposed Malawi as a soft target for wildlife criminals due to poor law enforcement, weak legislation and corruption. Its role as a key transit route and distribution hub for illegal ivory was further qualified in a 2016 ETIS/TRAFFIC report which named Malawi as a key ‘country of primary concern’ alongside Togo, Singapore and Malaysia.
LWT have helped to establish the country’s first Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit (WCIU) which is also supported by Community Enforcement Networks around protected areas. The WCIU is a tactical, reactive unit run within the Department of National Parks & Wildlife, and LWT also support pro-active intelligence work working on serious organised crime. The Trust’s court programme includes permission to privately litigate wildlife crime cases on behalf of the Government and the results speak for themselves.
These projects have helped Malawi achieve their most productive period of wildlife law enforcement for over 25 years, effectively disrupting criminal networks and thus protecting wildlife.
For example, since April over 60 ivory traders/traffickers have been arrested in Malawi across more than 35 separate cases, with c.400kg of elephant ivory seized by the authorities. This means that in the past 10 months Malawi has recorded more than 70% of the total number of ivory trader/trafficking cases that has been recorded on ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System) by Malawi for the previous 10 years.
In terms of outcomes in the courts, there were 56 recorded convictions for ivory trafficking/ trade in Malawi between 2011 and 2015, of which there were no custodial sentences issued, including a case involving 2.6 tonnes of ivory. The most common penalty was a fine of just $40. In comparison there have been 37 ivory trafficking/trade convictions (just 3 acquittals) and 26 custodial sentences in the past 5 months.
A further game changer, and a project managed by LWT, was the amendment of the National Parks & Wildlife in December. It removed inconsistencies and crucially strengthened penalty provisions to include prison sentences of up to 30 years and no option of a fine, making it some of the strongest wildlife legislation in the region and switching the risk-reward ratio back in favour of the State.
Pushing wildlife protection to the top of the public agenda in a country that has so many humanitarian priorities is challenging to say the least, but has been helped in large part by LWT’s Stop Wildlife Crime campaign. In April 2016, H.E. Prof Arthur Peter Mutharika led the Ambassadors, High Commissioners and Honorary Consuls in a video message to call on all citizens, residents and visitors to say no to ivory trade. LWT also became a founding member of Malawi’s Conservation Council in 2015, supporting the operations of the Malawi Parliamentary Conservation Caucus, which has been critical not only in the success of many of the SWC campaign initiatives but also in the passing of the Wildlife Act Amendment Bill.
Malawi is starting to make a name for itself in the conservation world as a progressive nation. It is testament to what can be achieved in a relatively short time frame when government, NGO’s and development agencies collaborate to combat illegal wildlife trade, one of the largest transnational crimes in the world, which also threatens so many wildlife species with extinction. Whilst this is just the end of the beginning, the results so far are very promising.