ROYAL VISIT TO MALAWI FOCUSES ON WILDLIFE CRIME

Last month, HRH the Duke of Gloucester flew from the UK to Malawi for a four-day official visit, with half of his packed itinerary dedicated to wildlife.

One of the objectives of his visit was to learn about Malawi’s efforts to combat wildlife crime, and in turn to raise awareness ahead of London’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in October 2018.  The conference is the fourth in a series that aims to bring together international leadership and secure political commitment to bring an end to illegal wildlife trade.  As royal patron of local charity, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, for the past 10 years he has always been a keen advocate for conservation in Malawi and so makes an excellent ambassador for the cause.

Illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest transnational crime in the world alongside guns, humans and drugs and as a result poses a threat to national security. International collaboration has become key in the fight to save iconic species from extinction and stop the devastating losses in biodiversity that will ultimately impact the very survival of humanity.

In 2015, Malawi was identified as Southern Africa’s principal transit hub for wildlife traffickers, in large part due to poor law enforcement and weak deterrent legislation. Wildlife poaching and trafficking at the time were not treated as serious crimes and those convicted of a wildlife crime could expect an average sentence of just $40.   

Since then, however, Malawi government has been hailed for its strong and swift response, with new initiatives including the Wildlife Act Amendment Bill, a dedicated Wildlife Crime Investigations Unit and an Inter-Agency Committee to Combat Wildlife Crime.

As a result arrests and convictions have significantly increased. The majority of the 125 sentences passed for wildlife trafficking in 2017 have involved ivory and record sentences have been passed this year of up to 18 years behind bars. Malawi courts have also been taking a tough stance against trafficking of other wildlife products such as rhino horn, lion and leopard skins and live pangolins.

British, German and US governments have been particularly forthcoming in their support to combat wildlife crime in Malawi.  Add to this new injection of funding high-level political support and department-level commitment to effective implementation and it’s a winning combination.  Director of Department of National Parks & Wildlife, Brighton Kumchedwa, won the coveted Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa for exactly the latter, and such was the accolade that it made both international news and front-page news here in Malawi. 

The Malawi Parliamentary Conservation Caucus (MPCC) has also been a vital driving force at the highest political levels. The MPCC was launched in late 2015 by HE Prof. Arthur Peter Mutharika, President of Malawi, who remains as their patron and membership is open to all members of parliament, showing the importance placed on cross-cutting political divides when it comes to the wider conservation agenda. 

The MPCC’s support for the Wildlife Act Amendment Bill was instrumental in its passing in early 2017, reputed as the fastest passing of any bill in the history of Parliament.  Just last month, the associated regulations were passed which added a further 216 species considered threatened in Malawi under protection.  Now their attention has been turned to supporting the passing of the long-awaited Forestry Act.

 They also played a key role in the royal visit, kicking off the proceedings with a high-level briefing on illegal wildlife trade with British High Commissioner, HE Holly Tett, Minister of Tourism, Hon Henry Mussa, and DNPW Director, Brighton Kumchedwa. They were represented at the Presidential dinner at State House alongside Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and African Parks, and also joined the Duke on trip to Liwonde National Park to see the elephants.

Hon Nyirenda, MP and publicity secretary of the Malawi Parliamentary Conservation Caucus said: “Given that the objectives of the Malawi Parliamentary Conservation Caucus include building high-level political will to protect Malawi’s natural resources, it has been an honour to take part in this briefing with His Royal Highness. Illegal trade in wildlife and forestry products is one of the biggest challenges we face in this arena, but it is a global challenge that requires international collaboration.”

There is still a long way to go in the fight against both wildlife and forest crime.  Even with the new initiatives in place, raising awareness, maintaining support and stamping out corruption will all be major challenges to keep the momentum going.  But what is encouraging is the support coming from so many sides, both local and international, and the impact as a result, which couldn’t come at a more urgent point in time where the global wildlife crisis is reaching a peak. 

As Hon Msowoya, Speaker of Parliament, stated in his speech at a recent MPCC event, “Conservation has been viewed by many as a luxury compared to Malawi’s urgent needs to support issues like health, agriculture and the economy. But what is becoming more and more apparent is that the issue of conservation is inextricably linked with almost every facet of our lives and governance. Conservation is now a necessity for the very survival of humanity.”  

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