The fight to stop wildlife crime is getting hot here in Malawi as is exemplified by how the Wildlife Action Group (WAG) nailed a notorious poacher, Dixon Muzinda.
WAG, which manages Thuma Forest Reserve in Dedza, had its law enforcement team trained in cracking down on poaching, courtesy of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW).
After a series of efforts to capture Muzinda, the fired-up team managed to nail Muzinda down.
A notorious elephant poacher in his quest for ivory, Muzinda had earlier committed an offence of hunting protected species and was sentenced and fined K40, 000 or 3 years in jail in default. He paid the fine.
But months later, Muzinda almost defaced himself after his manmade muzzle loader gun backfired whilst he was on another illicit hunting errand inside Kasungu National Park.
However, Muzinda escaped from his hospital bed before appearing in court to answer charges as a second offender in April, 25, 2017, Muzinda again entered Thuma, after crossing Linthipe River on the Dedza side of the reserve.
Law enforcers got wind of his presence and started tracking him and his accomplice and despite their best efforts to apprehend him, he managed to kill two elephants. It wasn’t until February when he was captured. He was found stalking a herd of elephant towards Linthipe River.
Before he was able to kill again, an unarmed patrol team caught and disarmed him. He is currently on remand at Maula Prison awaiting trial.
During the initial trial, it was revealed that Muzinda had terrorised Thuma, Nkhotakota and Kasungu protected areas poaching elephants in there.
Thus, he had contributed to the declining elephant population in the three protected areas and in Malawi.
Brighton Kumchedwa, Director of Parks and Wildlife, in an earlier interview, said poaching has brought Kasungu National Park’s elephant population down from 2,000 in the 1980s to just below 150 currently. This measures the scale of devastation that has gone on in the country on its elephant species.
Analysts say that there is a direct correlation between elephant decline and possible extinction in the wild on the one hand and the increase in criminal syndicates that link poachers to middle men and foreigners dealing in wildlife trophies on the other.
These people include both Africans and Asians, according to the data of ivory seizures and arrests made at Kamuzu International Airport.
Dwindling species statistics
There are growing fears among conservations that at the current rate of decline, endangered species such as the African elephant and the Black Rhinoceros face extinction by 2025 in the country.
This will have devastating effects considering the role wildlife plays in fostering tourism through accrued revenue in foreign exchange and the influence it plays in the economy of the country.
A new analysis conducted through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust ivory trade campaign suggests the raw ivory value of poached elephant to be at $21,000 while that of a living elephant is worth $1.6million over its life time.
The global ivory campaign compared the value of elephants to local economies to profits netted through the illegal ivory trade.
Between January and August 2014, researchers tallied about 17.8 metric tonnes of ivory seized worldwide, harvested from 1,940 poached elephants.
Most of these seizures occurred in countries identified to be doing relatively little to stem the tide of black-market ivory.
These findings came fast on the heels of a solidarity international march conducted in Lilongwe last October where a petition signed by over 4,000 concerned conservation advocates was presented to the Government of Malawi through the Ministry of Information, Tourism and Culture to scale up its efforts on the malpractice.
Illegal wildlife trade declaration
The London Declaration on Illegal Wildlife Trade of February 2014 to which Malawi is a signatory states that there is a serious threat to the survival of many species if action is not taken to tackle wildlife crime globally.
It says poaching and trafficking undermines the rule of law and good governance, and encourages corruption. It describes it as an organised and widespread criminal activity, involving transnational networks.
The proceeds are in some cases used to support other criminal activities, and have been linked to armed groups engaged in internal and cross border conflicts. For many species, the illegal trade, and the poaching which fuels it, is an ongoing and growing problem.
There has been a particularly dramatic escalation in the rate of poaching of elephants and rhinoceros in some places in recent years. The severe threat posed to these iconic species is increasingly also a threat to regional security and sustainable development, notes the declaration.
It calls for decisive and urgent action to tackle the illegal wildlife trade in endangered fauna and flora. Stop Wildlife Crime initiative
In the wake of these developments, the UK’s Commonwealth and Foreign Office has stepped in to fund the next wave of the ‘Stop Wildlife Crime’ outreach and awareness initiative.
The campaign, managed by Lilongwe Wildlife Trust in partnership with Department of National Parks and Wildlife, includes a whole raft of promotional tactics including TV, radio, posters, billboards and community road shows.
The ‘Stop Wildlife Crime’ campaign is the first of its kind in Malawi, and instills a sense of national pride and a desire to protect Malawi’s natural heritage whilst educating people on the law and encouraging the reporting of wildlife crime.
A week before Christmas, staff and travelers at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) would not have failed to notice the prominent posters and banners warning against any involvement in smuggling illegal wildlife trophies.
On December 16, Airport CommandantDonnie Chimtengo led staff from Police, Immigration, Malawi Revenue Authority, Department and National Parks and Wildlife and the local NGO, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, to appreciate KIA’s commitment in the fight against wildlife crime.
“You will recall that a multi-agency taskforce was instituted to curb wildlife related offences in the country, to which we are a party. As an airport which is an international border, we thought we have to play our part. So we were more than happy to partner with Lilongwe Wildlife Trust to bring this campaign to life here,” said Chimtengo.
“Initially it was the German government that came to sensitise our security officers. We called all the stakeholders and together went through scanning machines, cargo area and also engage the cargo agents and through those meetings we realise how important this campaign to curb wildlife crime is,” Chimtengo said.
Action and awareness Jonathan Vaughan of Lilongwe Wildlife Trust said that the sensitisation campaign is just one part of the fight.
“KIA has experienced over 25 known incidences of attempted trafficking the last three years. We can only assume that many more attempts are made and are unfortunately successful. Such sensitisation on the law, regarding illegal wildlife trade should alert passengers and staff to the need to be fully aware and ready to report or catch such criminals. It is hoped it may make some of the criminals think twice before they continue with their damaging trafficking activities,” said Vaughan.
Lilongwe Wildlife Trust is the country’s leading wildlife welfare and conservation charity and has worked alongside the Department of National Parks and Wildlife in this high profile campaign.
“When we hear about another ivory haul or elephant lost to poachers, we sometimes wonder if our efforts can really stem the tide of destruction. But we are not the only ones committed to making a difference,” said Vaughan.
“There are many other like-minded and passionate individuals and organisations out there, many of whom we are already working with, and if we can pool our resources and knowledge together,
keep the pressure up and encourage more to join us, then there might still be elephants wandering wild in Malawi in 2025,” he said.
Without question, it is time more awareness initiatives reach the local populace for them to change the attitude and perception.
There is need for more energetic initiatives to stop the likes of Muzinda, people who are hell-bent at decimating endangered wildlife species at the expense of the country.
For this malpractice is not only dangerous but it also disturbs the interconnected web of life within the ecosystem.