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From ivory to pangolin: Are we winning on wildlife crimes?

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WORRIED ABOUT FUNDING—Kumchedwa

Until recently, the word ‘pangolin’ rarely made news in the local media. And, it might as well be that not many Malawians knew that the country has this animal. Now it is trending as one of the most trafficked in the country. What’s the explanation for the emergence of pangolin trafficking? How has the fight against wildlife crimes in general in Malawi been like thus far? CHARLES MPAKA sent questions to Director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), Brighton Kumchedwa. Excerpts:

Not too long ago, ivory trafficking was a dominant conservation news in Malawi. What progress have we made in tackling this crime?

Ivory trafficking has been contained. For instance, between 2019 and 2020 the ivory seized declined form 563 kg in 2019 to 349 kg in 2020, representing 38 percent decrease and ivory cases declined from 67 cases to 35 cases over the same period while applying the same effort in law enforcement.

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We are now seeing the emergence of incidences of trafficking of the pangolin. How has this crime come about?

A number of reasons may account for the escalating pangolin trafficking:

  • Having tightened security on ivory trafficking they have now shifted to pangolin trafficking;
  • Easy to conceal unlike the ivory. Pangolins are easily coiled into a ball which is easy to conceal;
  • Presence of foreign nationals from the Far East e.g. the Chinse who eat pangolins, use it for medicine, scales manufacture perfume from scales etc, thus creating the demand locally.

Are you satisfied with the speed and actions of the courts in tackling wildlife crime cases in Malawi?

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Generally, the Judiciary is doing commendable work. For instance, we have now reached 65 percent prosecution rate of wildlife crime cases where a maximum 18 years jail term has been handed to wildlife criminals. This is no mean achievement particularly when 6 years ago wildlife cases were hardly prosecuted and whenever concluded in a court of law the result was a small fine of may be K40,000 and no custodial sentence. There is also now speedy trial of wildlife cases; only defended cases take relatively longer to be concluded in a court of law.

Some say the arrival of the Chinese has led to a surge of wildlife crimes in Africa. Is that also your opinion?

I subscribe to this narrative for the fact that some Chinese nationals have been convicted for wildlife crimes here in Malawi as well as in other parts of Africa. In Tanzania for instance, a China national nicknamed “Ivory Queen” was handed a jail term of over 20 years for dealing in ivory.

These are days of technology. What wild-tech investments has the Department undertaken in wildlife conservation in Malawi?

Yes, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) is technology-friendly; the following is being applied:

  • Cyber tracking for field data collection;
  • Use of drones (Kasungu National Park has some of its field staff trained in use of drones by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW);
  • The Department received a donation of two drones from the Government of Peoples Republic of China in 2019.
  • Radio collaring to remotely monitor movement of wildlife. For instance, cheetah in Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve have been collared, while selected elephants in Vwaza Wildlife Reserve, Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, Thuma Forest Reserve etc have been collared too.

Like other crimes, some wildlife crimes may be driven from within; that is, done with the complicity of those within the conservation sector, the people within the Department. How is the Department fixing this if it is an issue?

It is a fact that corruption is one of the key enablers of illegal wildlife trade and poaching. To prevent this from creeping in we have been engaging the Anti- Corruption Bureau (ACB) to address staff on Corrupt Practices Act. In addition, DNPW has just signed an agreement with Basel Institute of Governance of Switzerland where one of the areas of focus is to cooperate in assessing internal integrity risks in DNPW and build the capacity of internal controls of these risks. It will involve an assessment of existing risks, review of the existing internal controls set up to deal with these risks, and the design of a customised capacity building programme to strengthen internal controls. This, we feel, will help to decrease the likelihood of such [corruption cases] occurring in the DNPW.

What challenges is the Department experiencing in its conservation work and what are you doing about them as Director of the department?

The main challenges are:

  • Shortage of staff particularly ranger folk (foot soldiers);
  • Meagre financial resources allocated by the central government e.g. in the next financial year the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) has been allocated a very small amount of money from Other Recurrent Transactions (ORT) which will make operations in the protected areas impossible.

The Ministry of Finance has already been engaged on both issues of recruitment of staff and meagre financial resources. However, from the look of things nothing is going to change in the next financial year.

This, indeed, is unfortunate development as it may pull back the Department, thereby putting down the drain all the successes the Department has so far registered.

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