Written by: Lindy Taverner
Wildlife crime history was recently set in Malawi with not one, but two unprecedented court rulings – the first ever conviction of an individual dealing in rhino horn and, in a separate case, the first ever policemen to be convicted for wildlife trafficking.
Malawi was recently named as a ‘country of primary concern’ for its role as a major transit hub in the illegal ivory trade in a recent report published by TRAFFIC and ETIS (Elephant Trade Information System), alongside Togo, Malaysia and Singapore.
The Department of National Parks & Wildlife have been working alongside other government agencies and its supporting NGOs have responded with several initiatives including the country’s first specialised wildlife crime investigation units. The Amendment Bill for the National Parks and Wildlife Act is also expected to come to Parliament in the next few weeks which will further strengthen penalties and act as a deterrent for would-be wildlife criminals.
In neighboring Tanzania, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism has set up a dedicated wildlife crime unit. It operates with the National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU) and partners with the PAMS Foundation.
The NTSCIU is responsible for arresting several notorious ivory smugglers over the last year, including the infamous elephant poacher “Shetani,” aka “The Devil,” Boniface Matthew Mariango, and the “Queen of Ivory,” Yang Feng Glan.
Malawi’s law enforcement agencies are emulating the same model as the NTSCIU, leading intelligence-led operations targeting buyers and high level traders in urban areas, followed by thorough and professional case preparation and prosecution.
Whilst Malawi’s sentences are not yet as high as in Tanzania, it is a big step in the right direction. As recently as last year, $40 was previous average fine for ivory trafficking and there were no prison sentences for police. Co-operation and intelligence sharing between Tanzania and Malawi is paying off.
Wayne Lotter, co-founder of PAMS Foundation says, “The public private partnership between Malawi Police Services and Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) has been performing remarkably well considering how relatively short it has been functional. It really is proving to be the best model for combatting the illegal wildlife trade in source countries, with measurable improvements being shown within months wherever it is implemented”.
The newly convicted rhino horn trafficker in Malawi, Vwi Given Haiwa, is a 35 year old businessman from Ntaja village in the Machinga District. He had bought the horn from poachers who had killed the rhino in Liwonde National Park in February this year. Haiwa who is named on the Interpol Red List, was charged with dealing in a government trophy (a rhino horn) and was sentenced to eight years in prison with no option of a fine by Zomba’s Chief Resident Magistrate, Her Worship Agnes Patemba.
Eastern Region Prosecuting Officer for the Malawi Police Service, Dickens Mwambazi, who worked on the Haiwa case said, “these days those illegally trading in wildlife products must understand that, whatever their standing, they can expect punishments that befit what is a very serious crime. This is the first time ever that someone in Malawi has been convicted of dealing in rhino horn, and eight years is not an insignificant time to spend behind bars.”
Meanwhile at Lilongwe Magistrates Court, four men including two police officers were convicted for the possession of 14 pieces of ivory weighing 27.5kg. Sgt Nelson Pinganjira, 35 years old from Lilongwe, Emmanuel Makoza, 37 years old from Vge. Kanjerengo, T/A Zulu, Mchinji and William Banda, 37 years old from Nthunduwala, T/A Kawamba, Kasungu, each received four years in prison. Sgt Reuben Kaunda, aged 35 years from Nkhotakhota, was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. The officers were allegedly helping to escort ivory and acted as both drivers and middlemen.
Tommy Mhango from Lilongwe Wildlife Trust said, “For too long in Malawi, you could expect to walk away from court with a nominal fine if you were convicted of illegal wildlife trade. Nowadays it is not just poachers but also traffickers that run the risk of being locked up in Malawi’s prisons for many years. The government and judiciary are to be commended on how they have handled two challenging cases involving high level traders and government officials.”
He continued, “These cases are further examples of the hard work and collaboration between government agencies and supporting NGO’s that are working together to tackle wildlife crime in Malawi.”
Lotter of PAMS Foundation said further, “the potential of the multi-agency intelligence-led approach to help address wildlife trade is far greater than any other approach, apart from the demand disappearing. In Tanzania for example, after 6 years of worst levels anywhere, in year 7 there was a turnaround within twelve months of an estimated 2/3 reduction (6-7000 elephants). At a local project scale, since 2011, there have been dramatic improvements within months.”
Malawi’s black rhino population currently stands at less than 30 and there are just 5000 black rhinos left in the world, down from an estimated 65,000 in 1970, due to poaching to satisfy demand for rhino horn in Eastern markets such as China and Vietnam. Demand for ivory has similarly resulted in unsustainable poaching of Africa’s elephants, with the recent Great Elephant Census estimating a 30% decline in the last 7 years.
The successes in Tanzania and Malawi demonstrate how a well-managed intelligence-led approach to endangered species protection offers an efficient and cost-effective solution to the urgent issue of wildlife security.