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Ivory Burn in Malawi—A Strong Message Against Wildlife Crime

By Francis Phiri

Malawi set light to 2.6 tonnes of ivory on March 14. To see the tusks go black in the flames was a somber experience; they came from something like 390 dead elephants. I’ve seen elephants alive in our national parks—they’re beautiful, majestic creatures, and I’m proud that we have them in Malawi.

The ivory had been seized by the authorities from two traffickers in 2013 in Mzuzu, north Malawi. As part of the sentencing, a Court Order decreed that the ivory be destroyed.

The shipment was on its way to Lilongwe from Tanzania and included ivory from both Mozambique and Tanzania. The first court order for the destruction was initially postponed because the Tanzanian authorities wanted to use it in another case against poachers there.

It’s not my place to comment on the case, but this is the first time that ivory has ever been burned here in Malawi, and I’m interested to see how that influences public opinion.

There are many Malawians who think we should have sold it instead—as I also once thought. But after doing a bit of research, I’m now firmly in the “pro-burn” camp.

The destruction of the 4.1 tonne government ivory stockpile was postponed last April, around the time when journalists were writing sensationalist headlines about the millions of dollars it was reportedly worth, which in turn led to a debate on whether the ivory should be sold instead.

But it’s not worth a single dollar to Malawi. The illegal ivory markets are not easy to explain, but the upshot is that the only people who could profit from Malawi’s ivory stockpiles are criminals. That’s because Malawi is banned by international law from selling it. You can read more on why here.

Security is costly, and it’s possible that despite best efforts, keeping the stockpile off-limits could be compromised and some of the ivory stolen. A few criminals profiting at the country’s expense would be very embarrassing to Malawi.

Destroying a banned product is standard practice around the world—countries don’t stockpile marijuana, after all. I’m proud of our natural heritage, and I think burning our stockpile sends out a strong message to wildlife criminals that we’re taking a tough stand against illegal wildlife trade. Choosing not to burn it would send out very mixed messages.

I hope that by writing this open letter I can persuade more of my fellow Malawians to champion the strong message that was sent out to the world this week: Wildlife crime is not welcome in the “warm heart of Africa.”

Francis Phiri, more famously know as Lawi, is a Malawian musician and singer and an ambassador for Malawi’s Stop Wildlife Crime Campaign. (Find out more at www.malawiwildlife.org) His passion for wildlife springs from his early childhood experiences of church trips to Liwonde National Park, where as a nine-year-old he saw elephants for the first time. He is eager to revive the wildlife storytelling and singing traditions that have been central to Malawi’s culture for many generations and promote the importance of protecting the country’s natural heritage.