The hardest thing in fighting wildlife crime is convincing people it is serious. Across the world, it’s widely regarded as both insignificant and trivial: something only sentimentalists worry about. Malawi’s courageous act, coming from the world’s poorest country, is a call to wealthier nations around the world to sharpen up their game.
The international illegal wildlife trade is worth more £15bn a year. Most of the profits to go a small number of criminal networks that tend to be tied to militarised conflict. It is serious. It is also the third-biggest illegal trade after drugs and arms but is not policed with anything like the same sense of purpose.
Rhino-poaching deaths in South Africa have risen from 13 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014. It is estimated that between 2009 and June 2014, 170 tons of ivory were traded illegally. In terms of elephants, that’s about 230,000 dead. Elephants are now extinct in Sierra Leone and Senegal. Malawi is a small and crowded country but it still has a population of 2,344 elephants.
Animals in decline
Animals in decline
1/8 Harbour seal (Phoca vitulina)
Where: Orkney Islands. What: Between 2001-2006, numbers in Orkney declined by 40 per cent. Why: epidemics of the phocine distemper virus are thought to have caused major declines, but the killing of seals in the Moray Firth to protect salmon farms may have an impact.
2/8 African lion (Panthera leo)
Where: Ghana. What: In Ghana’s Mole National Park, lion numbers have declined by more than 90 per cent in 40 years. Why: local conflicts are thought to have contributed to the slaughter of lions and are a worrying example of the status of the animal in Western and Central Africa.
3/8 Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
Where: Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Costa Rica. What: Numbers are down in both the Atlantic and Pacific. It declined by 95 per cent between 1989-2002 in Costa Rica. Why: mainly due to them being caught as bycatch, but they’ve also been affected by local developments.
4/8 Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans)
Where: South Atlantic. What: A rapid decline. One population, from Bird Island, South Georgia, declined by 50 per cent between 1972-2010, according to the British Antarctic Survey. Why: being caught in various commercial longline fisheries.
5/8 Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica)
Where: Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. What: fall in populations has been dramatic. In the early 1990s numbers were over a million, but are now estimated to be around 50,000. Why: the break up of the former USSR led to uncontrolled hunting. Increased rural poverty means the species is hunted for its meat
6/8 Swordfish (Xiphias gladius)
Where: found worldwide in tropical, subtropical and temperate seas. Why: at risk from overfishing and as a target in recreational fishing. A significant number of swordfish are also caught by illegal driftnet fisheries in the Mediterranean
7/8 Argali Sheep (Ovis mammon)
Where: Central and Southern Asian mountains,usually at 3,000-5,000 metres altitude. Why: domesticated herds of sheep competing for grazing grounds. Over-hunting and poaching.
8/8 Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus)
Where: the Indo-Pacific, from the Red Sea to South Africa and to the Tuamoto Islands (Polynesia), north to the Ryukyu Islands (south-west Japan), and south to New Caledonia. Why: Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing and trading of the species
Wildlife crime was the theme chosen by the UN for its World Wildlife Day and Malawi will mark that day with its bonfire. It’s a blaze that will make people think in neighbouring countries, and which will have its effect in China – the country where most of the illegal ivory ends up.
When Prince William visited China he raised the issue of the illegal trade in ivory and the conservation of elephants. It’s an area where Beijing is finding itself increasingly exposed. A survey conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare claimed 70 per cent of Chinese believed the trade in ivory was OK, because an elephant’s tusks simply fall out now and then.
There have been campaigns to persuade China away from its addiction to ivory but it is still a hungry market for illegal trade.
At the current rate, African elephants will be extinct in the wild by 2025. This is bad news for both elephants and anyone who makes their living from the vast tourist trade associated with elephants in Africa.
Malawi’s bonfire is of humbling significance to us all. Here is the world’s poorest country putting such money as it has where its mouth is. Saying that elephants matter, that wildlife matters and conservation is not a luxury for when more pressing matters have been seen to.
There is not a country or a government in the world that can look at Malawi’s efforts and not be a little embarrassed. If Malawi can do this, every country can afford to do its bit, too.