Wildlife criminals received a stark warning when Kasungu magistrates handed out a record sentence last Friday. Ganizani Nkhata went to prison for four years in default of being unable to pay a fine of MK 450,000 ($1000) after he poached a serval cat in Kasungu National Park in August 2014.
The case was cracked thanks to a coordinated effort between Malawi Police Services, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and Department of National Parks and Wildlife. Central Region Prosecutor and Assistant Commissioner of Police, Levison Mangani, travelled from Lilongwe to lead the prosecution team.
This particular poaching incident involved a Serval cat that had been rescued and subsequently released back into the wild by local wildlife charity, Lilongwe Wildlife Trust. Servals are small spotted cats, sometimes mistaken for leopards. The charity had invested in a GPS tracking collar for research purposes so as to inform future releases.
“On July 11, 2014 the Serval cat was re-introduced in Kasungu National Park and the animal was collared with a GPS system device. This enabled the team to monitor its movement in the park through a signal sent from the collar to satellite and then to the computers on the ground,” Mangani told a fully packed court.
He added that after 12 August they lost the signal in Kasungu National Park and suspected something had been done to both the animal and the collar. With the help of wildlife officials they mounted a search as they were still able to get signals from the collar but no satellite data after it was damaged.
“In the course of trying to trace the collar, they traced its position to Munye village in Traditional Authority Kawamba. The precision signal finally pointed to the roof of the accused person where it was hidden on a thatch grass. This led to the arrest of the accused and they were brought to KU police station,”
Whilst the satellite collar helped to strengthen evidence against the defendant it was not the defining factor in the sentencing. Senior Resident Magistrate Damiano Banda made it clear that he was using all his influence to show that wildlife crime was being taken seriously by the authorities and that the very future of Malawi’s wildlife, and indeed tourism and thus economy, was being threatened by this type of activity.
Nkhata was found guilty on two counts – first on killing a serval cat, an endangered species, in Kasungu National Park in August 2014, for which he received a fine of MK 350,000, and second for malicious damage to GPS equipment, which came with a fine of MK 100,000. He was unable to pay the fine and will now serve a 48 month jail term.
In reaction to the outcome Jasper Iepema, Animal care manager at LWT said, “It is devastating that all the efforts put into releasing this endangered animal back into the wild were wasted. But some good has come out of today’s verdict. I think this serves as a lesson to others thinking of getting involved in wildlife crime.” Analysts have said that this case is considered to be a reference point for future prosecutions.