Last Thursday Malawi’s World Wildlife Day commemorations caught the attention of the world when the President, His Excellency, Prof. Arthur Peter Mutharika, stepped out to lead the country’s biggest demonstration of support so far in the fight against wildlife crime. And whilst the planned burning of 4 tonnes of ivory was postponed, there were strong words from His Excellency on the Government’s intentions. “Today we will not burn the ivory, I am told there is a court case on the same and once that is concluded, we will burn all the 6.6 tonnes together. The destruction of the ivory stockpile is not merely an action of government to protect the future of the country’s dwindling elephant population but also to send a strong signal to the rest of the world about Malawi’s commitment to the fight against wildlife crime.”
The commemorations represented a peak in Malawi’s ‘stop wildlife crime’ campaign. Colourful and vocal crowds walked to Parliament where they were met by the President who in turn accepted over 7000 signatures supporting the Government in their decision to say ‘no’ to ivory. His Excellency then viewed the ivory stockpile and unveiled a plaque, perched on a hill that overlooked Parliament and Lilongwe as he was cheered on by well over a thousand onlookers. Following this he then retired to the Presidential suite for the first viewing of the ‘stop wildlife crime’ film in the presence of Government officials and the directors of campaign partners, the Department of National Parks & Wildlife and Lilongwe Wildlife Trust.
The 8 minute film is an informative and emotional plea from Malawians who believe in the importance of protecting their country’s wildlife. From school children who wish for their children to one day see an elephant, and enforcement officers striving to bring poachers and traffickers to justice, to the dedicated park scouts who have witnessed the butchering of elephants first-hand, everyone has their own reasons for why they want to put a stop to the illegal practices which could well lead to the extinction of Africa’s most iconic species.
A staggering 25,000 of these elephants are estimated to be killed every year for their ivory tusks. If current rates of poaching continue they are set to be extinct in just ten years’ time, already a reality in countries like Sierra Leone and Senegal*. Exact data for Malawi is scarce but one source estimates that 71% of Malawi’s elephants were lost between 2002 and 2006**. In its heyday Kasungu National Park was teeming with so much wildlife that stock was sent to South Africa’s famous Kruger NP. Now that 2000 strong elephant population of the 1980’s is down to an estimated 58***. Malawi’s elephant maybe smaller than that of its neighbours, at around 1500, but these are still important populations and the country is vulnerable to exploitation, as a target by traffickers coming from the surrounding countries of Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. Wildlife crime could rob Malawi of its natural capital and cultural heritage, undermining the livelihoods of natural resource dependent communities (which includes many of the 16.5 million citizens), damaging the health of the ecosystems we depend on and undermining sustainable economic development such as tourism.
With the elephant crisis now surpassed its tipping point, attitudes worldwide must change now in order to save the elephant, coupled with swift and strong action. As seen from last week’s commemorations, Malawi is certainly taking its own fight against wildlife crime very seriously and the results are beginning to show. In just one year, there have been stiffer sentences, better inter-agency cooperation and the reviewing of wildlife acts.
And if the key objective of the ‘stop wildlife crime’ campaign was to push wildlife issues up the agenda, then one can claim success. However – as Lilongwe Wildlife Trust’s spokesman, Clement Manjaalera, pointed out – there is still a long way to go. “Our campaign has been running for over a year now but our work is far from done. Debate this week has been intense, which in many ways is positive. However we can still do a lot more to help people understand the complex links between wildlife, tourism, biodiversity and human health as well as the devastating impacts the illegal wildlife trade have on our country, especially that of ivory, and certainly more than can be communicated in an 8 minute film. In the coming months we shall be using every avenue available to us to help increase awareness of the importance of protecting Malawi’s wildlife.”
The English version of the ‘stop wildlife crime’ film is currently being shown on national TV with feature length programmes aired on the radio in the local language of Chichewa. There is also a Chichewa version of the film in production. Go to www.malawiwildlife.org for more on the ‘stop wildlife crime’ campaign.
Film by Jamie Unwin (http://www.jamieunwin.com) , commissioned by Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
* Dead or Alive (Iworry, David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust)
** Blanc, J.J., Barnes, R.F.W., Craig, G.C., Dublin, H.T., Thouless, C.R., Douglas-Hamilton, I., & Hart, J.A. (2007). African elephant status report 2007: An update from the African Elephant Database. Occasional paper of the IUCN Species Survival Commission No. 33. IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. vi+276 pp.
Photo: Morgan Trimble
Article by Kat Stansfield