Within a month of the official launch of Malawi’s ‘Stop Wildlife Crime’ campaign, several new cases of illegal ivory trafficking have come to light. On Sunday 23rd March, 30 kg of ivory bound for Lagos was intercepted at Kamuzu International Airport and were traced to a 38 year old Nigerian national, Nduisi Nwude. Whilst the ivory was confiscated the man escaped from the airport and is still at large. On 7 April, however, airport authorities were more successful. A Malawian national, Michael Kingsley Phiri who was a Clinical Officer at Kamuzu Central Hospital, was arrested at the same airport with 80kg of ivory. The case was heard this week at Lilongwe Magistrate’s Court and he was given a sentence of either 6 years imprisonment or MK1 million (equivalent to USD 2300). He chose to pay the fine.
With ivory fetching between $750 and $7000 per kg on the international market, many are arguing for harsher punishment. However, this case does represent a significant improvement to previous sentences. In October 2013, a Malawian trafficker was fined just MK150,000 after being found in posession of 28 ivory tusks. Both the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and the leading Malawian wildlife NGO’s expressed their disappointment with the sentence and planned to appeal.
The changing attitude comes as a result of increasing international and local pressure. Following the October ruling, local NGO’s Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, Wildlife Action Group and WESM joined forces with DNPW and mobilised schools to take part in a march to say ‘no’ to ivory. The march finished at Parliament where a petition was presented to the government calling for harsher penalties to stop ivory trade. In February, ahead of the UK’s international conference on illegal wildlife trade, the British High Commission hosted pre-conference talks at Lilongwe Wildlife Centre which included representatives from NGO’s and government departments including DNPW, Judiciary and Police. DNPW Director, Mr Brighton Kumchedwa, then attended the London talks to highlight Malawi’s commitment to the cause and appeal for support from the international community.
In March the country’s first ‘Stop Wildlife Crime’ campaign, run jointly by DNPW and Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, was officially launched by the Minister of Tourism and Wildlife. The 6 month campaign aims to raise awareness of the importance of protecting Malawi’s Wildlife and includes a programme of regular TV, radio and press coverage and community sensitisation around protected areas and border posts. A wildlife crime hotline has been set up and billboards on ivory trafficking have been sponsored in Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Blantyre. Last Monday a meeting was also held to discuss a multi-agency task force.
Last year an estimated 36,000 elephants were killed for their ivory tusks in Africa, equating to one life lost every 15 minutes. At the current rate of poaching African Elephants could face extinction in the wild by 2025. Malawi’s own elephant population is under significant threat. For example, poaching has brought Kasungu National Park’s elephant population down from 2000 to just 200. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Malawi is being targeted and exploited as a source and transit route for illicit wildlife trade. Evidence to that effect shows that between 2011 and 2014, a total of 23 arrests were made at Kamuzu International Airport alone with 69 pieces of ivory confiscated. In May 2013 the Malawi Revenue Authority intercepted 781 pieces of ivory weighing 2.6 tonnes that originated from Tanzania. Whilst the source of this month’s hauls are yet to be officially confirmed they are believed to have come from outside Malawi.