Law enforcement agencies’ efforts against wildlife crimes have seen Malawi being removed from the list of top ivory smuggling and illegal wildlife trade.
“Last year was our busiest and we worked hard rescuing, rehabilitating and post-release monitoring of Pangolins as the trade in these species, continues to escalate,” said Dorothy Tembo Nhlema, who is the Director of Programmes at Lilongwe Wildlife Trust.
Previously, Malawi was identified as the principal transit hub for illegal wildlife trade in southern Africa by the recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Nhlema said Malawi’s efforts to crack down on wildlife smuggling, including imposing lengthy prison sentences for offenders, are bearing fruits.
Meanwhile, chairperson of the Malawi Parliamentary Conservation Caucus WeraniChilenga explained that legislators have played a key role in strengthening the criminal justice system by pushing illegal wildlife trade to the top of the political agenda by among others facilitating cross-sector dialogue and expediting the much-needed policy reform.
Chilenga said significant progress has been made – attributing the development to new legislation, a progressive investigations and prosecutions model and increased inter-agency cooperation.
According to Chilenga, Malawi is now viewed globally as a model for combating wildlife crime rather than a country of primary concern.
‘‘It is a must for Malawi to comply with obligations under international conventions and maximize opportunities for support and international co-operation to address wildlife crime,’’ Chilenga added.
Chilenga’s sentiments were echoed by the Director of the Department of Parks and Wildlife in the Ministry of Tourism Brighton Kumchedwa, who stated that, ‘‘The efforts of eliminating smuggling of wildlife products are bearing fruits because this was not the case before”.
Kumchedwa said in 2021, the Lilongwe Magistrates Court sentenced Chinese national Yunhuai—believed to be a member of the notorious Lin-Zhang network—to 14 years in prison for crimes on rhino horn trafficking and money laundering.
The Voice of America described the Lin-Zhang network as one of the prolific wildlife trafficking gangs in Southern Africa trading in ivory, rhino horn and pangolins and has operated in Malawi for a decade.
“I think following the tough sentences that are coming from the courts and efforts by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife in collaboration with other partners there is a reduction in cases related to ivory smuggling and trafficking,” Kumchedwa said.
The Malawi Parliamentary Conservation Caucus report for 2020 titled ‘The Role of Corruption in Enabling Wildlife and Forest Crime in Malawi,’ pointed out that Malawi was a regional hub for wildlife smuggling. It further revealed that weak legislation and governance, poor enforcement and persuasive levels of corruption were critical enablers of illicit operations.
The Wildlife Justice Project in its review of wildlife crime court cases in Malawi covering the period from 2017 to 2020 recorded a total of 357 illegal wildlife trade cases which are offences related to listed species such as elephants, rhinos and pangolins in Malawi. Of the 255 cases, 232 were custodial with an average sentence of 4 to 8 years.
The report adds that in the last three years, Malawi courts have no longer shown leniency to those found guilty of wildlife trade and smuggling hence this was demonstrated in the year 2020 when custodial sentences of up to 11 years were handed out by the Lilongwe Magistrates court on Chinese nationals involved in illegal trade of wildlife products.
It adds that elephant-related cases and ivory trafficking have dropped by 44 percent during the 2017 to 2020 period.
According to a January report by Good Governance Africa (GGA), a research and advocacy non-profit organisation, every year Africa loses about $50 billion in illicit financial Flows (IFFs), described as the movement of illegally obtained money across borders.
This represents a huge lost opportunity in funds for economic investment in jobs, poverty, inequality and climate change. The report further says it is imperative to detect, trace and recover this money. At least a third of these IFFs are attributed to the trade of wildlife species perpetrated by criminal syndicates, states the article.
The article says wildlife crime was currently considered a lucrative black-market trade at par with drugs, arms and human trafficking in scope and profit. According to the report, criminal syndicates rely on a system of weak controls and governance systems to perpetrate wildlife crime in source, transit and destination countries, undermining the rule of law while endangering more than 7,000 wild species.
In the context of wildlife crime, these IFFs facilitated poaching, and the purchase of wildlife products and enabled their trafficking across borders. Wildlife crime syndicates move, hide, and launder the profits and proceeds of wildlife crime through various means, undermining the financial integrity of both financial and non-financial systems. These syndicates also engage and diversify into other forms of serious crime such as corruption and money laundering, according to the GGA article.