Alongside guns, humans and drugs, illegal wildlife trade is one of the largest and most lucrative transnational crimes in the world.
Most would associate this type of organised crime with the likes of Kenya or South Africa which have more abundant wildlife and a reputation for armed violence, not the relatively peaceful ‘Warm Heart of Africa’. But Malawi was indeed recently confirmed as Southern Africa’s principal transit hub for illegal wildlife products – a key link in a chain of poaching, trafficking and demand that is threatening some of Africa’s most iconic species with extinction.
Rhinos, pangolins and lions are in drastic decline to feed the demand of traditional medicine black markets in Eastern countries such as Vietnam, and elephants have already vanished from Sierra Leone and Senegal due to poaching for their ivory tusks.
Some of the world’s biggest ivory seizures, including the largest ever – 6.5 tonnes in Singapore in 2002 – have been linked back to Malawi with DNA analysis confirming that the majority was sourced in Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. Elephant populations in these neighbouring countries are taking a hammering with Tanzania losing 60% of its elephants since 2009.
For the 50 or so ivory trafficking convictions within Malawi’s borders between 2010 and 2014, the average penalty was just $40. There were no custodial sentences. In 2015, two brothers were intercepted in Mzuzu in the North of Malawi on their way to Lilongwe with 2.6 tonnes of ivory. They received a fine of $2500 each in lieu of 7 years in prison, which was paid in cash on the spot. That ivory was probably worth between $3 and $5 million on the illegal market in China.
The sentence paled in comparison to those passed in neighbouring countries in the same year. A man received a 5 years in prison in Zambia for being caught in possession of 12.5kg of ivory, there was a 10 year sentence in lieu of a $392.000 fine for a tonne of ivory in South Africa and in Kenya, someone was fined $233,000 for smuggling a single tusk weighing 3.4kg.
Couple this lack of deterrent-sentencing with inadequate law enforcement, weak legislation, and high perceived levels of corruption and Malawi has understandably been regarded as a low risk, high reward, environment by traffickers moving ivory from this region of Africa to lucrative markets in the East.
However, since the extent of the problem was exposed in Malawi’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Review in 2015, the scales have started to tip in favour of the authorities. In May 2016, the first specialised Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit was established within the Department of National Parks & Wildlife which, in partnership with the Malawi Police Service, made more wildlife trafficking arrests in the last 7 months of 2016 than the previous 7 years.
Interception is of course meaningless if the crime is not treated seriously in the courts. In this case, it was the Judiciary and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions who rose to the challenge, authorising courtroom advocates and the public-private litigation of wildlife crime cases in August last year. This unprecedented step resulted in a dramatic increase in both custodial conviction rates (94%) and average length of sentencing (moving from 0 to 3.5 years) and cases have included the first custodial sentence for rhino horn trading as well as the first imprisonments of police officers, government officials and foreign nationals for ivory trafficking.
Then in January this year, the National Parks & Wildlife Act Amendment Bill was passed, increasing penalties for wildlife crime to a maximum of 30 years with no option of a fine. According to the MP members of the Malawi Parliamentary Conservation Caucus who lobbied hard in its support, it was the fastest authorisation of any amendment bill in living memory, reflecting the determination of all the stakeholders.
It’s not just the organised criminal syndicates that should fear the Government’s harder line and the new legislation. In a show of support from the very top, President Mutharika himself led the British High Commissioner, the Chinese and US Ambassadors and thirteen other diplomatic mission leaders in a film reminding citizens, residents and tourists that wildlife crime will not be tolerated. Even an ivory statue hidden at the bottom of a tourist’s suitcase carries the risk of a prison sentence these days.
The Malawi government’s progressive and collaborative approach has attracted worldwide praise as an emerging leader in the fight against wildlife crime in Africa, and it’s a story that has reached a tipping point. At time of writing, the above-mentioned Mzuzu case that led to international embarrassment two years ago was heading to the High Court of Appeal, and nine people had been arrested over the 300kg of ivory intercepted in Thailand in March that had been allowed to pass unchecked through Kamuzu International Airport.
Beyond Malawi’s reputation lies that of a whole global generation whose actions will determine whether some of the world’s most iconic species can be saved from extinction. Fighting wildlife crime is not just a job for the authorities and conservationists, and whilst the dark underworld of ivory trafficking may seem a world away to many of us, there is a good deal we can do to help as individuals:
- Don’t buy wild. It is illegal to buy, sell or possess any wild animal or wildlife products without a licence. Wildlife crime now carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years.
- Stay informed and spread the word to friends and family.
- Report wildlife crime. Call 088 44 88 999 if you see any suspicious activity, or are offered for sale any wild animals as pets, or products made out of parts of wild animals such as ivory ornaments, hippo teeth jewellery or bush meat.
ABOUT LILONGWE WILDLIFE TRUST
Lilongwe Wildlife Trust’s works to protect Malawi’s habitats and wildlife through:
- Advocacy and enforcement initiatives that influence decision makers and help to bring wildlife criminals to justice.
- Wildlife rescue and research programmes that support the well-being of individual animals, the survival of species and the conservation of habitats.
- Conservation education that empowers people to act as guardians of the wild.
Go to www.lilongwewildlife.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more on how to donate to one of our projects or become a member. You can also follow our news @lilongwewildlifetrust on Facebook and @malawiwildlife on Twitter.