Malawi boosts forensics capacity against illegal wildlife trade
By Charles Mpaka:
Malawi is equipping the country’s first-ever forensics laboratory for DNA analysis of wildlife products, one of the major steps in the efforts to crack down on illegal wildlife trade.
In partnership with TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network, a non-profit based in Edinburgh, and TRAFFIC, a global NGO of wildlife trade experts, Malawi is establishing the laboratory at the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Lilongwe.
Three forensics scientists are currently practising DNA extraction from wildlife samples at the lab.
According to TRAFFIC, with such skills, Malawi can now analyse seized samples to find out whether they are synthetic or biological and what species they are from.
The analysis can even indicate whether a sample is from an elephant population in Malawi or has been smuggled from elsewhere outside Malawi.
TRAFFIC says traffickers will do all they can to smuggle elephant ivory out of Africa.
“And if it is detected, they often produce papers claiming the ivory is actually from hippos, warthogs, or just plastic. Once a colossal tusk is processed into small pieces for transportation, it becomes exceptionally hard to identify,” it says.
The skills and DNA analysis equipment in the laboratory apply not only to elephant ivory but also rhino horn, lion bone and wild meat.
Director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Brighton Kumchedwa has told Malawi News that increased forensics analysis capacity of wildlife products will assist in identifying specimens beyond reasonable doubt.
He said determining origin of a product could lead to further investigations and understanding operations of criminal networks.
“This is very instrumental in the prosecution of cases. It will increase chances of winning the cases in court,” he said.
Kumchedwa said Malawi’s fight against illegal wildlife trade has been affected by challenges such as determining origin of wildlife products and identification of specimens which do not have identifiable features such as whether it is from a lion, an elephant or a warthog, for instance.
Further challenges include inadequate financial resources to meet the cost of sending samples to South Africa or United States for DNA analysis, contracting foreign forensics expertise and delayed court hearings due to time taken to get the results for the samples dispatched outside Malawi.
Since the project started in December, one lab officer and two technicians have been trained in the science.
Nine officers from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife have also been trained as trainers. These will be conducting wildlife forensic awareness trainings to frontline staff for skills on evidence collection at suspected wildlife scenes and chain of custody for evidence as it passes through different law enforcement agencies.
This is the latest in Malawi’s wild-tech investments – alongside drones, camera trapping, radio collaring, Geographic Position System (GPS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (Smart) and detective dog units the country has invested in over the past few years in tackling illegal wildlife trade.
In September 2021, Malawi earned praise from global illegal wildlife trade organisations when the Magistrate Court in Lilongwe handed a 14-year jail sentence to a China national, Yunhua Lin.
Considered the lynchpin of a notorious wildlife trafficking cartel operating across in Southern Africa, Yunhua was convicted of illegal trade in wildlife parts, illegal possession of firearms, and possession of illegal drugs.
Lin was arrested in Lilongwe in August 2019.
In October last year, it emerged that super-detective Malawi Police dog named Buba had helped bust Lin’s network by sniffing articles of ivory at his house in Lilongwe, leading to his arrest.
Buba’s role in Yunhua’s crackdown emerged following his death.