By Rebecca Chimjeka
Dogs do not have a pride of place in Malawi. Here, they are kicked and stoned anyhow. In many households, there is no budget for them. They fend for themselves and eat leftovers or from garbage.
When they die, they are thrown away – usually without tears. No burial. No ceremony.
Only among the rich and the educated – and not all of them — do dogs have respect and get care equivalent to that of their human household members.
And these citizens have sometimes invested in some special, imported breeds.
So, to some Malawians, it will look really odd that the whole Malawi Police Service and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DPNW) should say they are gripped with grief that a dog has died.
But sad they will be, because Buba was no ordinary dog!
A qualified, super detective
An Israeli breed, Buba was a proper, educated detective. He had a diploma.
Not too long ago, he helped the country bust a notorious illegal wildlife trafficking syndicate that had been terrorising Southern Africa for decades.
In September 2022, Malawi hit global headlines as an example of wildlife crime fighting when it jailed Chinese national, Yunhua Lin, for 14 years for wildlife trafficking crimes.
Lin was a kingpin of one of Southern Africa’s most prolific wildlife trafficking syndicates named the Lin- Zhang gang.
For years, Lin evaded law enforcement in the region but his day came in August 2019 when Malawi arrested him alongside a local person, James Mkwezelemba, following a three-month manhunt.
In court in September, he was handed a 14-year jail sentence for dealing in rhino horn, 14 years for possession of rhino horn and six years for money laundering. The sentences were to run concurrently after which he would be deported back to China.
In her judgement, High Court Judge Violet Chipao highlighted aggravating circumstances, in particular Lin’s conduct in absconding from justice for three months, as well as the evidence that pointed to his role as gang leader, for sentencing him to 14 years in prison.
She said traffickers such as Lin were encouraging poaching and therefore needed to receive a more serious punishment than poachers as a deterrent.
“The pieces of rhino horn came from not one but five different rhinos … what’s more, the court feels that Mr Yunhua Lin was a mastermind as he owns all the properties where specimens were found,” Chipao said.
Lin’s sentencing brought the total of Lin-Zhang gang members sent to prison to 14 — 10 Chinese and four Malawian nationals who had received jail sentences for a variety of offences related to the possession of firearms and protected or listed species, including pangolins, rhino horns, hippo teeth and elephant ivory.
Malawi got praise for this crackdown.
Mary Rice, Executive Director of the London-based Env i ronme n t a l I n v e s t i g a t i o n Agency (EIA), said:
“We’re very pleased to see this notorious wildlife crime k i n g p i n finally face the music with a stiff sentence of 14 years in prison and trust that it sends a crystal-clear m e s s a g e to other wildlife criminals plundering Africa’s natural resources that they are not beyond the reach of the law.
“I believe today’s judgment and the destruction of the Lin-Zhang gang will prove to be a pivotal moment in Malawi’s commitment to bring high-level wildlife criminals to justice.”
Brighton Kumchedwa, DPNW director said:
“It is critical that wildlife criminals can expect to feel the full weight of the law and the message needs to be loud and clear: Malawi is no longer a playground for the likes of the Lin-Zhang syndicate that exploit our natural heritage, damage our economy, incite corruption and pose a risk to national security.
“This is indeed a victory for the Malawi – and a victory for our nation’s wildlife in particular.”
In the shadows of all that success was Buba.
According to the Malawi Police Service, detective Buba busted the network by sniffing articles of ivory at the house of Lin in Lilongwe. In effect, it was his work that brought Malawi success and global mention.
Which is why his death has struck a raw chord in the police, as spokesperson Peter Kalaya indicates.
“I can confirm the death of Buba. He died at the age of seven due to hip dislocation. It’s a big loss to our detective work, we brought Buba when he was four,” Kalaya said.
Kumchedwa has described Buba’s death as a blow to the wildlife crime investigations in the country.
He said the introduction of the detective dog unit in the police service added value to our work.
“A good example is the involvement in the Lin case. Dogs reduce human error. So, it’s my hope that a replacement for Buba will be found,” Kumchedwa said.
According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a dog’s incredible sense of smell means they can sniff out even the tiniest amount of ivory in a 40-foot container.
Though sensitivity varies by species, their noses can be 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than those of humans, says WWF.
“They really are a vital part of our fight to end wildlife crime,” it says.