Africa, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-MALAWI: An Elephant Poacher’s Paradise?

Charles Mkoka

BLANTYRE, Jan 28 2004 (IPS) - As the clock ticks closer to a sell-off of ivory stocks in Southern Africa, questions are being asked about why Malawi’s legislation has not yet been strengthened to meet the dangers posed by elephant poaching.

In 2002, delegates to a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreed to a one-off sale of ivory stocks by Botswana, Namibia and South Africa after May this year.

These countries will be allowed to sell 20, 10 and 30 tonnes of ivory respectively. The tusks will have been taken from elephants which died a natural death – or which were culled by parks officials.

While all ivory sales were banned in 1989, CITES also allowed a single round of selling in 1997 – in Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. About 50 tonnes of ivory were sold to Japan at that stage, netting a profit of five million dollars. This money was set aside for conservation.

Although Malawi will not partake in the 2004 sell-off – also intended to finance conservation – there are fears that the country’s laws are too weak to prevent poachers from trying to cash in on the sale. Environmental analysts say the National Parks and Wildlife Act needs to be reviewed so that penalties for illegal ivory trading are brought in line with the gravity of the offence.

Gracian Banda, a lawyer at the Malawi center for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, says “The…act was revised in 1999 by a consultant hired by government. The amended legislation has not, however, been presented in parliament.”

He adds that the updated law may itself need to be refined to include specific provisions for possession of – and trading in – ivory. At present, says Banda, the law simply refers to an illegal trade in “specimens” or “trophies” – something that devalues items like ivory or rhino horns in the perception of law enforcement officials.

“The sentences for dealing and trading in ivory should be based on the value of the ivory, and fines and prison terms structured accordingly,” observes Banda.

While Malawi’s Director of Parks and Wildlife, Leonard Sefu, doesn’t think the wildlife act is inherently weak – he does agree that attitudes towards conservation need to change fundamentally.

“The biggest problem is that of lack of awareness and appreciation for wildlife. The Malawi thinking is that wildlife has no value,” he told IPS from his office in the capital, Lilongwe.

“This should change,” Sefu added. “The people should appreciate, and this appreciation should be exhibited in leaders, decision makers, politicians and the judiciary.” He expects the amended legislation to be tabled soon.

Conservationist Paul Taylor, who heads the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi, has harsh words about the fact that the amendment process, which began five years ago, has yet to reach its conclusion.

“The change of the wildlife act is typical of government business. Hopefully after elections we will get a government that is interested in conservation.”

Taylor adds, “There has been so much talk that tourism be developed as an alternative to tobacco. However the government does nothing to facilitate tourism – and (the) most important component in the tourism sector is protection of wildlife.”

The loopholes in environmental legislation were glaringly highlighted recently, in the case of Maria Akimu – a businesswoman involved in illegal ivory trading.

Although she was caught in the act of selling 14,000 dollars worth of ivory by an under-cover team of parks officials, a magistrate fined her just 55 dollars for the offence.

The discrepancy between the fine and the value of the ivory sparked outrage on the part of the conservation community. Gervaz Thamala, a parks veteran who sustained severe injuries during Akimu’s arrest, was also frustrated by the ruling.

Thamala told IPS that Akimu’s father, Blackson, hit him over the head several times with a pestle (a heavy tool used for grinding maize). Thamala also narrowly escaped being wounded with a knife, and his colleague had to fire in the air several times to disperse a crowd that had gathered to resist the arrest.

“I just discovered that I was lying down in a pool of blood after being hit several times on the head by a heavy pestle. I heard gunshots, but since I was lying down and in the course of losing my consciousness, I could not confirm it,” he recounted.

The ruling was subsequently appealed by Gracian Banda, representing the state.

In a second judgement, Justice Dunstain Mwangulu sentenced Akimu to a year in prison, noting that “Possessing, trafficking, hunting of trophies should in recent times be considered as a serious offence.”

“Much of the trafficking, hunting and possession of trophies affects animals that are endangered species,” he noted, adding “Malawi must…eliminate completely all conduct that threatens these species.

Rumours that the first ruling was marred by corruption persist, fuelled amongst other things by the inconsequential fine issued to Akimu – and reports that a district politician bailed her out of prison.

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