By Jonathan Vaughan
On April 2, Malawi’s planned destruction of its ivory stockpile was postponed.
Despite clear assurances from President Peter Mutharika himself that the burn will go ahead following the conclusion of an outstanding court case, the decision caused heated debate. Social media and online chat forums set alight, with calls to cash in on the “millions” that Malawi could make from selling its ivory.
But the vast majority of commentators missed the point, because, quite simply, the ivory in question is worth nothing to Malawi. To be sold, it would have to be laundered illegally, breaking international law.
A Sale Would Break More Than Law
Malawi has been a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1982. Under CITES, international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989.
Selling Malawi’s ivory would therefore be no different from taking a haul of confiscated cocaine and deciding not to destroy it but to sell it back into the black market.
At the same time a sale, by breaking several signed declarations, would negate much of the recent work done by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) to galvanize international support.
Malawi has further upped its game in the fight against wildlife crime by taking an active role in talks that have led to international collaboration. During the past two years, three declarations have been signed that have committed Malawi to a hard line against the ivory trade.
The most recent was the Elephant Protection Initiative, which incorporates a commitment to reject the ivory trade for a minimum of ten years—and thereafter until African elephant populations are no longer threatened. This includes the closure of domestic ivory markets and a moratorium on any consideration of future international trade, as well as a pledge to destroy ivory stockpiles.
A Sale Is Not an Option for Malawi
Some have argued for inaction, for storage until a later date when markets may once again become legal. But that prospect seems highly unlikely. CITES has only ever entertained allowing ivory sales for countries that have adequate data to prove that their elephant populations are either stable or increasing.
Malawi has scant data and an elephant population presumed to be declining rapidly, so applying for a legal international ivory sale would be futile. A previous application by Malawi was rejected in 2003 for these very reasons.
What’s more, even if Malawi could make progress on both of these fronts, ivory to be considered for sale would have to come from legal culls or animals that have died of natural causes. Only a fraction of Malawi’s stockpile consists of this “legal” ivory, the vast majority having been confiscated from traffickers and poachers.
So while there are humanitarian and wildlife-related causes in Malawi that cry out for investment, channeling ivory proceeds into the economy isn’t an option: The only people who would profit would be criminals.
Since the 1989 CITES trade ban, two one-off ivory sales have been allowed. CITES is highly unlikely to entertain additional one-off legal sales by any countries, given that these acts have been held responsible for the unprecedented increase in poaching worldwide.
Knowing the negative impact that trade in ivory can have, we should surely want no part of it.
Living Elephants Will Drive Malawi’s Economic Growth
Our elephant numbers may be smaller, at around 1,500, than that of our neighbors, but our populations are still viable and deserving of protection.
Elephant viewings still pull in safari tourists, who have no trouble spotting herds of elephants in the likes of Liwonde and Majete—and tourism itself represents a big economic opportunity for Malawi.
While other African countries are suffering from the fallout of Ebola scares and terrorism threats, Malawi is benefiting from its reputation as a safe, friendly country. That, coupled with a diverse natural heritage—notably elephants—has helped place Malawi in CNN’s and Lonely Planet’s top ten must-see destinations in 2015.
One recent study by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust assessed the tourism value of a single live elephant at some 1.6 million dollars—more than 76 times the value of its ivory in death.
The opportunity tourism represents to Malawi has not gone unnoticed by the government, which has identified the industry as one of the pillars for economic growth.
If Malawi’s economy needs tourism, and tourism needs wildlife, then prioritizing wildlife protection through a “total war” on wildlife crime is a wise financial move.
The biodiversity value of elephants is a topic for another day, but suffice it to say that biodiversity losses from elephant declines would have a catastrophic effect on agriculture and human health in one of the world’s poorest nations: Malawi ranks 174 out of 187 on the United Nation’s Human Development Index.
The High Cost of Poaching
Wildlife crime robs the country of its natural capital and cultural heritage, undermining the livelihoods of communities dependent on natural resources (the majority of the country’s 16.5 million citizens), damaging the health of the ecosystems we depend on, and undermining sustainable economic development, such as tourism.
Malawi’s economy loses an estimated 8.4 million dollars each year to poaching, which in general is no longer for subsistence—“the pot.”
Ivory trafficking worldwide is estimated to have tripled in the past ten years, and the illegal trade is becoming highly militarized, with an estimated 90 percent of trafficking profits ending up in the hands of organized criminal syndicates and terrorist groups.
In Malawi, local commercial trade for bush meat and traditional medicines on the black market is now prevalent, with poaching of certain species—especially elephants—controlled by syndicates.
In Liwonde National Park, Operation Safe Haven collected more than 3,500 wire snares, confiscated 17 poaching boats, 10 gin traps, and 7 spears between November 2014 and February 2015. More than 30 arrests were made during that time. More....