By Rebecca Bloomfield
The scent of tobacco and specks of sand hang heavily in the warm warehouse air as a piece of ivory is placed within a wooden crate. Once hidden, you would never know that it was there. If the crate was to be placed in the centre of a shipping container, surrounded by other similar-sized boxes, it would be impossible to immediately find it without luck intervening. Unfortunately, this has been the reality in Malawi, a nation named as Southern Africa’s principal transit hub for the trafficking of illicit wildlife products. That is, until now.
Passing by the wooden crate, it takes Buba a mere few seconds to indicate the presence of ivory. A three-year-old Dutch Shepherd, her eyes are bright as she sniffs the air and lowers herself to the ground. She doesn’t take her attention away from the crate until her handler has rewarded her with her favourite toy, showering Buba with praise for her success.
Buba is just one member of Malawi’s new Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU), having arrived with three other detection dogs in June. The team have been carrying out training drills as they acclimatise and prepare to help detect illegal wildlife products and other contraband concealed within the many aircrafts, vehicles and freight containers that enter and leave Malawi.
Malawi is a key link in a chain of poaching, trafficking, and demand that is threatening some of Africa’s most iconic species with extinction, and some of the world’s biggest ivory seizures have been linked back to the country, which is positioned centrally in a regional poaching hotspot. Up until recently, wildlife criminals thought of Malawi as an easy transit hub for them to transport their contraband. But, over the past couple of years, the Malawi government have put in place a number of initiatives to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade.
In 2014, the Director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), Brighton Kumchedwa declared that: ‘Ivory trafficking is driving the killing of our elephants and needs immediate action if the killing is to be significantly disrupted within Malawi and the wider region.’
From this statement grew the ‘Stop Wildlife Crime’ campaign, which has been running in partnership with the Malawi Government and the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) since 2014. The campaign aims to raise awareness about wildlife crime and support lobbying and advocacy activity. It also led to the publication of the Illegal Wildlife Trade Review (IWT) in 2015, co-authored by LWT, which outlined the extent of the trade in Malawi and made recommendations to strengthen the criminal justice system and wildlife law enforcement.
Since the review, the amended National Parks & Wildlife Act was passed in February 2017 – the fastest passing of any amendment bill in the history of Parliament – and the government has also introduced a specialised Wildlife Crime Investigations Unit and court monitoring programmes, ensuring wildlife criminals are adequately sentenced in the courts.
During the 18 months after the amended National Parks and Wildlife Act came into action in 2017, there were 60 arrests and 91 custodial sentences passed. This equated to more arrests in 18 months than in the previous 18 years and more custodial sentences were passed than in the preceding 10 years.
It is clear that wildlife crime needs to be tackled from every angle, be it preventing the traffickers from leaving the country with contraband, ensuring that the public is well educated on what counts as wildlife crime, carrying out successful convictions or strengthening deterrents such as fines and criminal sentences.
The WDDU is now in action, following the official launch on Thursday 9th August. The event highlighted the importance of this step forward in stopping wildlife crime, allowing the airports and Malawi to better equip themselves against the ever-lucrative illegal trade. In attendance were a number of influential people, including, Rodney Jose, Inspector General of Police, Brighton Kumchedwa, Director of National Parks and Wildlife, Rhoda Gadama-Misomali, CEO Airport Developments Limited, and the British and German Ambassadors.
The WDDU will be searching for ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, animal skins, bushmeat, hippo teeth, firearms and ammunition and other contraband in luggage, cargo, freight and post, and on transport. Detection dogs have a sense of smell 40 times that of the human nose and can detect even the smallest amounts of contraband. It is hoped that this skilled unit will help reduce the amount of wildlife crime being carried out within Malawi’s borders. Each contraband find will mean fewer wildlife products reaching the market and more traffickers being caught and prosecuted, thanks to the efforts of Malawi’s Stop Wildlife Crime Campaign and all those involved in the Wildlife Detection Dog Unit.
The WDDU project is a partnership between the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, Malawi Police, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, and Lilongwe Society for the Protection Against Cruelty to Animals, and is funded by US Aid and Vulcan Inc.