The theme for this year’s World Wildlife Day is ‘the future of wildlife is in our hands’.
Malawi has taken the matter to heart, and is taking action from the very top. President Peter Mutharika has publicly pledged his support for the country’s Stop Wildlife Crime campaign, highlighting the importance that is being placed on the crackdown on illegal ivory trade.
What’s more, the diplomatic community have also stepped forward. Fourteen ambassadors, high commissioners and honorary consuls to Malawi have chosen World Wildlife Day to send a strong message to their nationals: ‘Do not buy, sell or have in possession any artefacts made of or containing ivory, because ivory trafficking is a serious crime that could lead to prosecution and very possibly a custodial sentence. Spread the message to friends and family, and report any suspicious activity’.
Experts predict that at current rates of poaching for ivory, elephants could go extinct. Illegal wildlife trade is the 4th largest transnational crime in the world and stands as the greatest threat to the survival of endangered species like elephant and rhino.
It severely impacts biodiversity and people’s livelihoods, national security, and social and economic development.
New data that emerged last year as a result of the country’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Review shows that Malawi is being exploited as a transit route and distribution hub for ivory. This is ivory that has come from the nation’s own elephants – numbers have more than halved since the 1980’s primarily as a result of poaching – but also ivory trafficked in from its neighbours Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania, which are home to some of Africa’s largest elephant populations.
Africa is on the frontline battling the poachers and traffickers working to meet the demand of the lucrative foreign ivory markets, particularly in the East and especially China.
Much of the illegal ivory trade is being orchestrated by organised criminal syndicates and Malawi has indeed been implicated in some of the largest ivory seizures in the world. The biggest ever seizure – at 6.5 tonnes equivalent to over 150 elephants – was made in Singapore in 2002 and had been shipped from Malawi’s capital of Lilongwe, and in 2013, 2.6 tonnes were confiscated from a container within Malawi’s borders at Mzuzu.
However, there is also evidence of a growing consumer market for small pieces of worked ivory like chop sticks, statues or jewellery. This constituted the majority of the 90+ ivory cases that have been recorded in Malawi since 2010 involving a range of nationalities with some of the traffickers appearing to be the end consumers.
With an estimated 10 percent interception rate, the true number will be much higher. So whilst Malawi must prioritise its fight against poaching and trafficking (i.e. the supply) it can also help to reduce demand for wildlife products too.
The Stop Wildlife Crime campaign, a joint initiative between the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) funded by the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), has become an umbrella movement for pushing wildlife crime onto the public agenda.
DNPW Director, Brighton Kumchedwa, said that the campaign had complemented a number of other Government initiatives to combat illegal wildlife trade.
“Raising awareness across the board so that people really understand the issues has been key to driving positive action. This is a transnational crisis which means we need to keep both Malawians as well as foreign residents and visitors well informed, and that our work tackling wildlife crime is one of the key priorities for the Malawi Government and our partners.”
The backing from the Head of State and the diplomatic missions does not only act as a powerful campaign endorsement but also provides a route to new audiences who may not be aware of the realities of the illicit wildlife trade. An IFAW survey conducted in China showed that 70 percent of those interviewed did not know that ivory came from dead elephants and that the tusks fall out naturally.
Late last year, the Chinese Ambassador to Malawi, Zhang Quingyang, echoed his government’s sentiments to stamp out the illegal ivory trade by joining the campaign team to host a wildlife crime workshop with the Chinese community.
It was this work that led to the idea of bringing all diplomatic missions on board to reach out to their nationals too. Now each mission is updating their travel advice to ensure that everyone is aware of Malawian law on wildlife products.
A short film starring President Mutharika and fourteen envoys will be released next month and will be shown on national television, hosted online and played on loop in the airports.
Advocacy alone will not halt the extinction of elephants. However it can make a difference in conjunction with other initiatives tackling the weaknesses that make Malawi a soft target for wildlife criminals. This is where collaboration is key and whilst Malawi may be lagging well behind other countries in terms of wildlife legislation and law enforcement, cooperation between government, local and international NGO’s and development partners is starting to pay off.
For example, there’s the recent privatisation of Liwonde and Nkhotakhota NP’s under African Parks which is improving wildlife protection on the ground.
On a similar vein, only one elephant was lost to poachers in Thuma Forest Reserve last year thanks to the efforts of local NGO, Wildlife Action Group.
The Inter-Agency Committee Combating Wildlife Crime is improving information sharing and thanks to funding from GIZ, ivory detection dogs are being introduced at the airports and the review of the National Parks & Wildlife Act (NPWA) is currently underway.
The amendment should be passed in June which will mean stiffer penalties for wildlife criminals, strengthened further when coupled with judiciary sensitisation and court monitoring.
Jonathan Vaughan, CEO of Lilongwe Wildlife Trust who also sits the NPWA Review Committee, said:
“The proposed amendments should give the authorities significantly more power to pass on stiffer sentences for serious wildlife crimes. It’s also encouraging to see that prosecutors are starting to take what action they can to use the weight of the current legislation.”
He went on to compare two cases tried in the Mzuzu region, in different courts but just 6 months apart.
“In August 2015, two brothers caught trafficking 2.6 tonnes of ivory were each given the choice of a $5,500 or 7 years in jail. They chose to pay the fine. In February 2016, two more brothers who were caught in possession of 8kg of ivory were sentenced to 4 ½ years and 2 ½ years in prison and given no choice of a fine. We hope this trend continues and serves as a deterrent to would-be wildlife criminals.”
The Malawi Parliamentary Conservation Caucus (MPCC) have taken part in the consultation process for the amendment bill and are also staunch supporters of the Stop Wildlife Crime campaign. Alex Major, Member of Parliament for Kasungu West and co-chair of MPCC, was keen to emphasise the humanitarian importance of protecting Malawi’s wildlife.
He said, “With the many humanitarian struggles we are facing, especially food shortages that could lead to great suffering of the people, some might suggest that prioritising conservation issues is a luxury we cannot afford. But this would be a huge mistake because conservation and human wellbeing are intrinsically linked.”
He pointed out that in addition to the negative impacts on tourism and the economy there would also be knock-on effects on ecosystems and even agriculture, saying, “We know the consequences and I have seen evidence of them for myself. My constituents are losing out because of elephant poachers and even the charcoal burners that are destroying Kasungu National Park. We cannot stand by while our natural heritage is plundered for the profit and greed of a minority.”
The current wildlife crisis is indeed a direct result of people’s actions, not a natural occurrence like a flood or a drought. If indifference and inaction are the norm then the destruction will simply continue and species like elephants will disappear forever.
And if this is allowed to happen given the high stakes, then what hope is there for the rest of the world’s wildlife?
With the Head of State, parliamentarians and almost all the diplomatic missions pledging support, wildlife issues are certainly not being trivialised.
Let’s hope that the plans to make wildlife crime much riskier and less profitable come to fruition and we all do what we can to protect Malawi’s elephants and the rest of our natural resources for future generations.
For more information on the campaign and how you can help, go to www.malawiwildlife. org.