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The Elephant Wars: Malawi Leads The Fight Against Illegal Wildlife Crime

17/03/2017 13:51
Buena Vista Images via Getty Images

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Image credit: Pixabay

Elephants have the biggest brain of any mammal, this makes them highly intelligent and very sociable creatures; they even recognise their own reflection in a mirror. Despite their huge size and thick skin, they're also very sensitive. Like us, they experience sadness and pain - when an elephant is stressed or mourning a last relative of the herd, their ear holes, which are located behind their ears on the sides of their heads, start to cry.

Elephants communicate with each other from long distances by using deep throaty groans that only they can hear, similar to whales in the ocean. They use these vibrations to locate other elephants and warn each other if there is a dangerous threat in the area. This incredible way of communicating is called 'silent thunder'.

Unfortunately no amount of 'silent thunder' can save them from their mass slaughter at the hands of ivory poachers. Populations of elephants across the world have been hunted and killed in their thousands for their tusks just because humans have decided that carved ivory ornaments and jewellery are worth more than their lives.

In the UK, one of the world's largest exporters of legal ivory, the government is still dithering over banning domestic ivory because it is 'part of our cultural history'. Seriously, how can the survival of one of our most iconic wildlife species be less important than a stuffy old antique artefact?!

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Image credit: Lilongwe Wildlife Trust

Right now, it is estimated that an average of 96 African elephants are killed every day, that's one every 15 minutes. Their number is believed to have declined by a third in the last seven years.

We have clearly reached crisis point, if we don't tackle illegal ivory trade then elephants will become extinct, they'll be nothing more than a distant memory, a bedtime story. Grandparents will tell their open-mouthed grandchildren: 'great gentle giants used to walk this earth'.

Every country has a responsibility to protect elephants and fight the ivory trade, be that reducing demand or bringing down traffickers. Poorer African countries have to find ways to make live elephants worth more than dead ones.

I was privileged to attend a recent conference called by the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT), an NGO run by British couple Jonny Vaughan and Kate Moore, to discuss the inspiring steps Malawi has taken in the past year to crack down on wildlife crime and make East Africa a safer place for elephants.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and has many humanitarian challenges. Weak legislation and corruption has made it a soft target for organised crime syndicates and it has become a vital transit country on the ivory supply route, with thousands of tonnes of ivory passing across its borders, destined for lucrative markets in Asia.

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Image credit: Lilongwe Wildlife Trust

Just last week, 300kg of elephant tusks from Malawi were seized and confiscated at New Bangkok International airport. Smugglers are willing to take the risk of shipping ivory to Thailand to be carved as it significantly increases the product value.

In the illicit ivory supply chain, a transit country like Malawi has fewer players than source countries, which have a lot of poachers, or consumer countries, which have a lot of buyers, due to the nature of the trafficking chain. But these criminals are operating at an increasingly sophisticated level, in the grey areas outside the green of the protected areas, and they have the blood of hundreds of elephants on their hands.

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Image credit: Lilongwe Wildlife Trust

Their despicable crimes conflict with the kind and hospitable nature of the Malawian people and now the country that likes to promote itself as the "warm heart of Africa" is fighting back. It is targeting these high-level criminals and taking them down and, in doing so, significantly disrupting the supply and demand of ivory.

In the past year, Malawi's government has worked with LWT to create its first specialised wildlife crime intelligence and investigation unit, pass a new Wildlife Act and form an agreement to take legal action on wildlife crime cases, a first for Africa.

These initiatives are having an immediate impact: there have been more arrests for ivory trafficking in the past 7 months than in the previous 7 years and sentences have shifted from paltry fines averaging just $40 per conviction to average custodial sentences of 4 years. With the catalogue of sentences including, for the first time ever, convictions for; a trader in rhino horn, a police officer and a Zambian wildlife trafficker.

Brighton Kumchedwa, director of National Parks and Wildlife, says: "We are changing the way in which we deal with wildlife crime, no longer treating it as a secondary matter. Before, poaching cartels were given negligible fines for serious hauls of ivory. Often they would turn up in court, pay the money and reoffend later the same day. Now, Malawi has shown the political will to make a difference by tightening up its wildlife legislation and that determination has filtered down to the judiciary and police."

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Image credit: Lilongwe Wildlife Trust

This hardline approach is an example to us all and demonstrates the sort of progressive determination that is critical to making real change happen. Each country needs to work on its solutions to the elephant crisis because the future of these stunning animals is in our hands.

Jonny Vaughan, CEO of LWT, says: "No country on earth can tackle the challenges presented by conservation and wildlife crime on its own. The days of thinking that it is 'under control' are over. It is only through genuine local, national, regional and international collaboration, carried out in a spirit of transparent collaboration and with a focus on agreed common objectives, that we will, together, win this fight."

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Image credit: Lilongwe Wildlife Trust

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