By Charles Mpaka:
The arrest, conviction and sentencing of a Chinese wildlife crimes kingpin, Yunhua Lin, last year is “an excellent example of the dogged determination” the agencies in Malawi have shown over the years in tackling illegal wildlife trade in the country, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has said.
But there is still a lot of work to do, said the UK-based organisation in its response to our questions on review of the progress the country and Southern Africa at large have made in fighting wildlife crimes.
In September last year, Malawi made global headlines in environmental circles when the magistrate court in Lilongwe sentenced Lin, considered the mastermind of one of Southern Africa’s most notorious wildlife trafficking syndicates, to 14 years imprisonment.
Arrested in 2019, Lin was convicted on charges of rhino horn trafficking and money laundering.
Mary Rice, Executive Director for EIA, told Malawi News that achieving a result like Lin’s arrest and imprisonment cannot happen overnight, let alone singlehandedly.
“In the Lin case, there was considerable international attention on the network and the progress of court hearings, supported by regular media attention,” she said.
Rice said Malawi has had a historic role in the illegal wildlife trade, especially as a transit route and collection point, but there has been progress.
“As far back as the mid-nineties, organised criminal syndicates were exploiting Malawi’s weak governance and judicial process. It has come a very long way to the point that it is now heralded as a success story,” Rice said.
However, there is still a long way to go, she said.
“There are still issues, particularly around corruption, but the direction of travel continues to be in the right direction,” she said.
Regionally, she said while Covid-19 pandemic may have disrupted the movement of illegal wildlife trade products over the past two years, there are still cases of continued poaching, cross-border incursions and trafficking being perpetrated by organised criminal operations.
Rice said large seizures continue to be made but that lack of effective intelligence-led work before, during and after the seizures remains a challenge.
“Seizures are not a measure of success. They are only one step in the chain of effective enforcement and if they are not followed up and investigated, they merely represent an accumulation of dead animals,” Rice said.
On October 1 2021, just two days after Lin’s sentencing, the British government’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund (IWTCF) announced a £7.2 million funding towards 17 conservation projects around the world for protection of endangered tree and animal species such as tigers, rhinos, orangutans, pangolins and rosewood.
One of those projects is in Malawi. It was awarded £460,000 (K552 million at present day rate) for “courtroom monitoring, private prosecutions, support open judicial dialogue and case law reviews.”
“This work will drive transparency in judicial processes, reduce corruption and deliver on-the-job mentoring, increasing protection for rhinos, pangolins and rosewood timber,” the British High Commission in Malawi said in a statement.
Pangolin, rosewood and rhinos are listed among protected and endangered species in the National Parks and Wildlife Act.
A wildlife crime trends 2017 – 2020 report by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) shows a pattern of considerable outcomes in wildlife crime related prosecutions.
For instance, in listed species crimes (those vulnerable to endangerment), Malawi secured 95 percent convictions in 2017, 90 percent in 2018, 70 percent in 2019 and 84 percent in 2020.
On cases related to endangered species (those likely to become extinct), there was a 100 percent conviction rate in 2017, 100 percent in 2019, 78 percent in 2019 and 89 percent in 2020.
However, there has been a notable rise in acquittals.
For example, while there were just 4 acquittals in 2017 (against 78 cases) and 5 (against 52 cases) in 2018 in cases under listed species, the number of acquittals rose to 22 (against 75 cases) in 2019 and 17 acquittals (against 105 cases) in 2020.