Conservationist David Bradfield had an interesting story to tell about one of his visits to Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
Wearing the disguise of a tourist, he asked a group of curio sellers in the city whether he could buy ivory from them. “When I asked if they could offer some for sale, one vendor produced three bags of worked ivory, ornaments and souvenirs. I said ‘No, I am not interested’,” he said.
This was the situation that Malawian authorities found themselves confronted with, on the eve of a planned sale of 66 tons of ivory in nearby Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
In November 2002, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) ruled that the global ban on ivory trading could be suspended next year for a one-off sale of stockpiles from these three countries. The money would be used to improve protection for wildlife reserves.
However, a number of conservation groups believed that adequate mechanisms to monitor this sale were not in place — and that it could lead to a surge in the poaching that was already evident in Malawi.
Tanzania had since indicated that it too would like to sell off some of its 80 000 kg ivory stockpile.
Another conservationist, Paul Taylor, said, “It’s best to have the ban.
“Yes, money to run protected areas (is important). But, it’s too dangerous. I am totally against it.”
Even when anti-poaching laws were put into effect, the result left much to be desired.
In a recent landmark case, a businesswoman from the southern Machinga district found in possession of ten tusks (weighing 127kg) was only fined about $57.
According to the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi — located near the commercial capital of Blantyre, it cost the government about $4 700 to try the businesswoman, Maria Akimu. This was nearly a hundred times the fine that she was asked to pay.
A lawyer at the Malawi Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, Gracian Banda, had been hired to assist authorities with re-opening the case against Akimu. “There are good grounds for reviewing the case…The law says if you are guilty of possession of illegal ivory, the fine shall not be less than the value of the trophy.
“That is the basis of our argument: ‘value of the specimen’,” Banda said.
Nonetheless, he feared the possible long-term effects of next year’s planned ivory sales. “Once the gates are open there will be a spill over. A mechanism is needed to certify legal trade.
“There is also a need for monitoring, so that illegal ivory from other states does not masquerade as legal ivory.
“Further international co-operation between police, customs officials and Interpol needs to be harnessed.”
Based in France, Interpol was the International Criminal Police Organisation, which helps national police forces to catch miscreants.
Taylor lamented the lack of co-ordination between the various law enforcement agencies in Malawi. “Customs and wildlife personnel don’t work as a team and lifting the ban would spell doom for (the country),” he said.
This poor co-operation — combined with porous borders and high levels of poverty had combined to make Malawi a hub for the illegal ivory trade.
According to Bradfield, who was in Malawi for a project funded by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, elephant populations in the Namizimu and Phirilongwe reserves in southern Malawi had declined drastically during the past few years.
“Look, 15 years ago there were about 200 elephants in Phirilongwe forest reserve — but now about 30 are remaining. Local people are killing these elephants, and move with tusks in broad daylight.”
The deputy director of Parks and Wildlife responsible for research and planning, Roy Bhima, said the Kasungu, Vwaza and Nyika national parks were being targeted by cross-border poachers.
“The situation is more worrying in Kasungu national park… one of the biggest parks in the country, (which) used to be a haven for wildlife. A recent elephant count in Kasungu Park, this year, found the elephant population to be approximately 200… Numbers used to be exceed 1 000,” said Bhima.
Liwonde park, in the south of the country — and removed from national borders — offered some hope. The elephant herds there are said to be stable. Malawi was currently estimated to have about 2 500 elephants.
Bhima said that Malawian and Zambian officials were discussing a trans-frontier venture to guard protected areas along their common border –namely the Kasungu, Zambia Nyika and Malawi Nyika national
The initiative was being funded by the South Africa-based Peace Parks Foundation, of which former President Nelson Mandela was a patron.
According to Banda, efforts to strengthen laws against poaching were still under discussion. “The National Parks and Wildlife Act was reviewed in 1999 and… in 2000. But, amendments have not passed. Policy processes are ongoing issues,” he said.
Deputy director of Parks and Wildlife responsible for wildlife management, Humphrey Nzima, also emphasised the need to make Malawian society as a whole aware of the need to protect elephant
“Definitely, the support from politicians, the judiciary and the community at large is crucial for the future of conservation in the country,” he said.
Malawi was presently trying to build a strong tourism industry with wildlife as its major attraction, to boost foreign exchange earnings.
The illegal ivory trade flourished because of strong demand in East Asia. Save the Elephants, a conservation group based in Britain and Kenya, visited several countries in the Far East last year to investigate how much ivory was being sold in the region, and elsewhere.
Researchers Esmond Bradley Martin and Daniel Stiles concluded that the situation was most worrying in China, which was said to have received in excess of 40 tons of ivory over the past five
The team found 270 000 pieces of ivory for sale in Africa and Asia.
Cites banned ivory sales in 1990 in order to protect elephants that had been the target of this lucrative trade. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, a conservation group based in Britain and the United States, Africa’s elephant population fell from 1,3-million to 624 000 in the decade that preceded the ban. – IPS