What’s Behind Malawi’s Decision Not to Burn Its Ivory Stockpile?


Michael Schwartz, A Voice for Elephants, National Geographic

Date Published
The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) seized a large shipment of ivory being transhipped through Perth in April 2015. Officers detected the 242 pounds (110 kilograms) of ivory while examining an air cargo shipment from Malawi, being transhipped to Malaysia. Press release photograph courtesy of ACBPS.
By Michael Schwartz
Malawi president Peter Mutharika recently decided to postpone the burning of roughly four tons of stockpiled ivory, worth around seven million dollars. He claimed that at least 2.6 more tons are still being held as evidence in the upcoming trials of suspected elephant poachers.
While his initial decision to destroy the ivory is being lauded by some Malawians, others question whether a burn is the best possible recourse. Some see confiscated ivory as disposable remnants of barbarism that only carry intrinsic value when attached to their owners. Others see it as revenue to help the country’s poor or to augment conservation.
This also broaches the larger debate as to whether or not destroying contraband stockpiles really helps elephants in the long run.
Most remember the 1980s as a particularly bad decade for elephants. The Ivory Trade Review Group discovered a record population decline–numbers falling from 1.3 million in 1979 to somewhere around 600,000 by 1989. Poaching of course was a major contributing factor.
What many people don’t know is that the poaching was primarily happening in East Africa at the time, whereas Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe still had fairly healthy populations, which were growing prior to the international ivory trade ban in 1989. Subsequently, Southern African countries relied on ivory revenue from culls and natural elephant mortality to bolster their own conservation efforts.
It was those same states who publicly expressed frustration when CITES issued the 1989 ban on ivory sales, which paved the way for Appendix I and Appendix II split listing of the species. That same year, director of the Kenya Wildlife Conservation Department Richard Leakey spearheaded the torching of 12 tons of stockpiled ivory with approval and assistance from then president Daniel arap Moi.
Despite negative ramifications from the one-off sales approved by CITES in 1999 and 2008—mostly owing to China’s economic boom and ivory purveyors’ uncertainty over future supply resulting from the two transactions being finite—these bygone facts remain important in the context of present-day Malawi.
A Major Misconception
There still remains a major misconception about Africa and the conservation approach required to produce meaningful results. Part of the misapprehension revolves around the fact that primarily Western promulgated policies are being championed in a part of the world that operates under disparate political, social, and economic climates.
Africa is often viewed by the West as a single entity, whereas in reality it’s very different depending on the region, country, or municipality. As in the United States, for example, what may work well in New York may not necessarily be as effective in Florida. Similarly, what may work in Kenya may not work in Malawi.
The reason given for postponing the burn in Malawi seems dubious at best. And should an ivory sale hypothetically take place, it remains questionable if monetary yields would be used toward conservation projects or poverty reduction, given historic high-level corruption by the country’s fiduciary agents.
In his recent piece “To burn or not to burn: Muckraking Extra on Malawi ivory,” Nyasa Times columnist and freelance journalist Raphael Tenthani expressed frustration at the mistreatment of Malawi’s game rangers, referencing examples of the state’s bad habit of issuing them untimely pay and their having to combat poaching in the field with antiquated ranger gear.
Do Ivory Burns Curb Poaching?
Tenthani also expressed doubt as to whether an ivory burn would effectively curb poaching.
Ivory burns or crushes are public relations solidarity campaigns—designed not only to trigger public emotion while showcasing a commitment to saving wildlife but also to obtain continued conservation funding from the predominantly Western collective. But are these methods actually saving elephants? And where are the fiscal contributions going?
The increasing number of elephants killed each year continent-wide should clue people into the fact that while message-sending stockpile destructions certainly aren’t lacking in passion, they may not necessarily be eliciting the desired outcome.
So what then should be done to save elephants?
First, institutions holding monetary sway need to work more closely at the grassroots level to fortify a local desire to safeguard wildlife. Poverty in Africa is rampant, coupled with the fact that many people are still living side by side with dangerous animals.
Malawi is one of Africa’s poorest countries. In essence, people living on next to nothing are, understandably, not always as concerned about the fate of local wildlife, despite urgings by well-off countries to protect them.
Diverse Strategies Needed
Comments from Malawians who responded to Teenthani’s online column—some calling for the ivory to be sold and the proceeds used for poverty alleviation—are a clear indicator of such differences in the first world/third world paradigm.
Divergent priorities therefore will require more diverse strategies from conservationists if they hope to counter dwindling elephant numbers. While a burn may be sending a powerful message, it may not necessarily generate the local cooperation that’s so desperately needed.
Second, it’s vital for international groups with pecuniary influence to highlight other conservation obstacles that are of equal significance.
Human-wildlife conflict, for example, is another major point of contention, as an alarming number of people in Africa are killed each year by animals. An estimated 500 are killed annually by elephants in Africa and Asia, according to former National Geographic producer Brian Handwerk.
Solving the continent’s poaching epidemic is indeed essential. But turning the public eye on other key issues, such as Africa’s population explosion, crop destruction by elephants, sustainable development, game park encroachment, and providing the right incentives in exchange for local support are just as important.
While some conservation institutions in Malawi, such as the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and African Parks, are working hard to mitigate these challenges, others seem content to spotlight just one aspect of a multifaceted situation. Merely underscoring the poaching problem only depreciates other critical factors.
Obstruction By Corruption
With more than half of Malawians living below the poverty line, it should come as no surprise that elephant poaching continues unabated. Meanwhile, one of the biggest obstructions to elephant conservation is administrative corruption.
In 2013 for example, ten government officials were arrested in connection with the methodical theft of millions of dollars and the shooting of Paul Mphwiyo, the ministry of finance budget director who was speaking out against government corruption.
Known by the epithet “Cashgate,” its direct impacts to the country’s conservation sector included a loss of $66,000—stolen by Victor Sithile, an accounts assistant for the environment ministry—and the pilfering of $150,000 by tourism official Treza Senzani.
But the biggest repercussion was foreign aid donor pullouts, leaving the Malawi government with a budget deficit of roughly $24 million.
Just this month, President Mutharika replaced Atupele Muluzi, Minister of Natural Resources, Energy, and Mining, with Bright Msaka, the former Minister of Lands, Housing, and Urban Development.
The Nyasa Times reported that an anonymous source from within the president’s cabinet alleged that Msaka was still being paid the salary of his former position as chief secretary to the government while earning wages as the lands minister.
Not every political scandal in Malawi directly affects elephant conservation, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
The question remains as to the sincerity of Mutharika’s reason for postponing the ivory burn.
Malawi is duty-bound by its own constitution to, “prevent the degradation of the environment; provide a healthy living and working environment for the people of Malawi; accord full recognition to the rights of future generations by means of environmental protection and the sustainable development of natural resources; and conserve and enhance the biological diversity of Malawi.”
Clearly, this is subject to loose interpretation with regards to either burning or selling the government’s stockpiled ivory.
Whatever President Mutharika finally decides to do, the world should be stressing that political will, transparency, and accountability are the framework for a healthy democratic ecosystem, the results of which would have primary advantages for his people, and fringe benefits for Malawi’s remaining estimated 1,500 elephants.
But if the government ignores its people for the personal financial gain of officials, then no strategy—be it ivory burn or ivory sale—will save what’s left of its plummeting elephant population.
Michael Schwartz is a freelance journalist and associate with the International League of Conservation Writers. His primary areas of focus are wildlife conservation and sustainable development in Africa.