President Peter Mutharika’s intention to destroy the country’s $7.5 million (K4.5 billion) worth of ivory stockpile has opened a barrage of counterarguments, but the burning issue is not ‘why not just sell the contraband for the good of the ailing economy?’ Rather, ask: Where will government vend the loot and stand up proudly in a world where endangered animals are more lucrative alive than killed? JAMES CHAVULA puts last week’s postponed ivory burn in context.
The Department of Parks and Wildlife planned to burn ivory estimated at K4.5 billion, but not a stick caught the fire at Mzuzu Natures Sanctuary last week Friday. The only things that went up again was the country’s single most important sign to show elephant poachers ivory trade has no room in the country.
“The political will to end wildlife crime is clear and we are very dismayed the effort to put ivory out of economic use has been thwarted,” said visibly distressed conservationist Kate More of Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) as the curse of Mzuzu’s famous ivory case hit again.
The country’s planned burning of ivory was postponed at the last minute, the second of its kind. The 2.6 tonnes of ivory in question, known to have been smuggled from Tanzania and Mozambique, had been seized by Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) in 2014 from two wildlife traffickers, Patrick and Chauncy Kaunda. The High Court of Mzuzu accordingly slapped the convicted brothers with K5 million fine or seven years in jail, ordering director of parks and wildlife Bright Kumchedwa to destroy the illegal haul within 60 days as part of the July 28 sentence.
Hold the fire
However, in a dramatic turn of events Tanzanian officials arrived at the court just hours before the lighting of the pyre and obtained a ‘stay order’ of a further 90 days.
In their reasoning, they want to further persuade Malawi’s courts to release the ivory to Tanzania, where much of it originated, to be used as evidence in prosecution of poachers awaiting trial there. Whether the plan would be to return the ivory to its point of confiscation to support their neighbour’s pledge of destruction remains to be seen.
Tanzania, like many African nations, has been hard hit by poachers. It is especially struggling to maintain its reputation as a top wildlife tourism destination, with Selous National Park recently named as the ‘elephant killing fields of Africa’. In the last four years, an estimated 67 percent of its elephants have been lost to poachers.
Surprisingly, the worst hit neighbours have long opposed calls for incineration of ivory in preference for another point of view in favour of selling the ivory to bankroll anti-poaching efforts that seem scanty and ineffective presently. Lately, this view has been put to test—with that Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete backing the ivory burn, saying selling his country’s $5 million (K2.8 billion) would further worsen poaching.
The increasing number of the continent’s leaders opting to destroy stashes of ivory is not a burning issue. It remains the single most blatant sign of political will to clamp down on illicit trade in endangered animals—a phenomenon which is increasingly turning Malawi into a soft spot for poaching and turning Malawi into a poaching ground as well as a highway for truckloads of illegal wildlife cargo.
Kumchedwa aptly summarised the new momentum when he vented his frustration at how Dodoma had not been “open enough” having received a notice of Lilongwe’s intention to burn the illegal booty shortly after Judge Dingiswayo Madise’s verdict in July.
“Today’s turn of events is a big disappointment to us,” said the parks and wildlife official, overlooking Mzuzu Courthouse. “We, as Government, were ready to show the world our genuine commitment to fight wildlife crime. Malawi is being exploited as a conduit by wildlife traffickers as can be seen from this very case. Our plan was to send out a message to people “that if they think you can target our nation to traffic illicit goods then they can think again, because we shall turn it to ashes.”
Such is the commitment to end crime against fauna and flora that the contentious horns would have been on fire had the Tanzanians not crossed the Songwe Border on Thursday night, he explained.
LWT director Jonathan Vaughan added: “Putting ivory stockpiles out of economic use is one of a number of steps that the government of Malawi has committed to in its fight against wildlife crime, efforts that we shall continue to support. Malawi’s stance is clear—that ivory is not for trade.”
The destruction of ivory stock piles would prevent the risk of the law being under-mined and confiscated ivory being leaked back into the illegal market. Stockpiles are both a target for theft and an inducement to corruption. Their disposal would avoid the risk of embarrassment of such misappropriation.
Malawi must now fight to ensure that the destruction of the ivory goes ahead after the 90 days granted by the stay order and that the ivory is not extradited to Tanzania.
According to senior state advocate Neverson Chisiza, the country is not obliged to repatriate the ivory to Tanzania, but the stay order only creates room for the two countries to commence negotiations in line with Mutual Legal Assistance Act.
Fine, but negligible
On April 2, Malawi’s first planned destruction of its four-tonne ivory stockpile was also cancelled at the last minute as President Mutharika reportedly awaited the inclusion of the ivory that was being held as part of the Mzuzu case.
“We have not set the date to burn the Lilongwe pile, but the ivory burning ceremony postponed in Mzuzu was supposed to be the beginning of the end of this story,” said Kumchedwa.
This is the case in which George Nxumayo, the division manager for wildlife in the North, commended the judiciary for the highest fine for ivory trafficking in the country.
However, it left the campaigners seething with disappointment as the convicts were each given sentences of just $5 500 (K3.1 million) or seven years in prison, a penalty loftily dwarfed by those of other African countries. Last year, a trafficker in South Africa got 10 years and a $392 000 (K222 million) fine for being found in possession of one tonne of ivory. In Kenya, the offence attracted $233 000 (K132 million) for a single tusk weighing 3.4 kilogramme (kg).
For the wildlife groupies, the imminent revision of the Wildlife Act holds some hope for improved sentencing which would act as a deterrent to would-be criminals. In terms of flushing ivory out of the economy through its destruction, the jury is still out.
Not for sale
Government partly blames undercurrents of ivory trade for halving Malawi’s elephant population from nearly 4 000 to 2 000 some 15 years ago.
Critics of the ivory burn have argued for a sale, fuelling the misconception that there is a market for trade in the first place. The international trade in ivory is banned—and the ban is extremely unlikely to be lifted. Seized illegal ivory can never be sold, which constitutes almost Malawi’s entire stockpile. Whereas there is a vanishing chance of a sale sanctioned by the 1982 United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) for ivory from natural deaths or problem animals, it would not be entertained in the case of Malawi due to its small and rapidly declining elephant populations. Both Malawi and Tanzania are signatory to Cites as well as the Arusha Declaration, Kasane Statement and Elephant Protection Initiative which require the countries to putting ivory out of economic use.
Malawi has fewer elephants than many of its neighbours, its role as a soft target for both traffickers and poachers was made clear in the government’s illegal wildlife trade assessment published earlier this year. Wildlife crime in Malawi is contributing to the demise of elephants in its game reserves and beyond the borders.
It threatens national security and economic growth through tourism, a call to tough and urgent action.
What’s more, this is a global problem which requires transnational cooperation regardless of the hide-and-seek interplay that seems to underpin Malawi’s ties with Tanzania amid a border dispute over Lake Malawi/Nyasa.
Highly organised international criminal syndicates are profiting from the illegal ivory trade at the expense of many African nations. The world will be watching to see if the two countries can come to an amicable agreement that puts the elephants first, where the outcomes include both the conviction of the Tanzanian poacher as well as the fulfillment of Malawi’s decision to put the illegal ivory out of economic use. n