Tackling illicit ivory trade

In this series, our Staff Reporter JOHN CHIRWA tracks footprints of poachers in the country’s tourist attractions.

Reverend Kanyimbo, 26, is not a pastor, but a man behind the bars. Last year, he was sentenced to four years  imprisonment for vending ivory.

The convict, from Matulo Village along the western borderline of Nyika National Park, was caught sounding out prospective buyers at Nthalire Rural Growth Centre in Chitipa.

Poaching and laxity in law enforcement threaten the country’s elephant population

“We posed as buyers and found that he had two pieces of ivory. We arrested him and took the matter to court, where he was convicted,” says Nthalire Police Unit officer-in-charge Lester Chananga.

According to parks and wildlife division manager Peter Wadi, Kanyimbo is just one of 47 poachers convicted of poaching in the country’s largest national park.

“All of them are serving various jail terms at Rumphi Prison and 17 of them come from Nthalire,” says the regional wildlife conservation manager.

This makes the trading centre at the foot of Nyika Plateau an epicentre of wildlife crimes which have more than halved the country’s elephant population in the past decade.

“Ironically, two of them are village heads. Others are Zambians and Tanzanians. Worrisomely, the locals aid these foreigners in poaching,” says Wadi.

The Department of Parks and Wildlife has recruited 97 game rangers to curb the crime which is wiping out game from the country’s tourist attractions.

 “We had 35 rangers, but now we have 71. Our work is easier now,” says Wadi.

However, poaching continues despite the boost. Conservationists point at Kasungu National Park, which has just about 80 elephants out of 1 500 that roamed its jungles in the 1990s.

“The population is improving, but it is still low. The problem was worse in 2005; the park had just 50 elephants,” says region division manager Timothy Chana.

Between 1979 and 1989, poaching and illegal trade in ivory trade halved the number of elephants across Africa to 600 000.

The United Nations (UN) estimates illicit trade in wildlife products generates $213 billion annually, making it the world’s largest transnational organised crime.

Malawi is party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) that bans ivory trade globally.

But laxity in law enforcement has turned the country into a transit hub of southern Africa’s clandestine ivory sales, according to the 2016 Report on the Elephant Trade Information System.

The report lumps the country together with Malaysia, Singapore and Togo as countries of primary concern.

“The mean law enforcement ratio is rather poor for this group, suggesting that considerable quantities of illicit ivory traffic probably move through these countries without being detected,” it reads in part.

The country burned its ivory stockpiles in 2015 and enacted new laws that impose a 30-year jail term on wildlife criminals.

According to director of Parks and Wildlife Bright Kumchedwa, this demonstrates political will to end wildlife crimes and send a strong message to ivory traffickers as the country is in danger of losing its elephants.

Parliamentary Conservation Caucus (MPCC) chairperson Welani Chilenga-now Deputy Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining-was instrumental in passing the revised National Parks and Wildlife Act, which he considers a game-changer.

The law prescribes a K15 million fine for crimes that once attracted just K2 million.

“We deliberately put stiff penalties to instil fear in would-be offenders. With stiff penalties, these problems will become a thing of the past,” he says.

But Lilongwe Wildlife Trust campaigns coordinator Samantha Nampuntha warns that the law will become ineffective if enforced selectively.

“We have seen instances where the law is tough on local Malawians and lenient on foreigners. We call on government to enforce the law without prejudice,” she says. n

NEXT: Forging a win-win deal

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