“The world’s poorest country,” wrote The Independent of the UK earlier last week, “is to make the world’s most expensive bonfire.”
The insinuation may have been irreverent but the message was poignant. Malawi was scheduled to burn four metric tonnes of ivory worth over US $7 million. The stockpile was made from accumulated contraband seized from poachers and smugglers who were planning to launder them in the Far East, notably in China.
But it all ended up to be an anti-climax as President Mutharika announced that Malawi was postponing the incineration of the ivory because government has realised there are at least 2.6 million metric tonnes more tied up in courts as evidential exhibits in trials of smugglers and poachers.
If the reason sounded hollow it is perhaps because it is. Look, if we are going to wait for all pieces of ivory to be on the stockpile before we set alight the pyre then we may never ever burn any ivory. For starters, our courts are notoriously slow in dispensing justice. Besides, because of the lucrative nature of the business more and more poachers and smugglers will continue killing more and more elephants for their trophy tusks.
Or perhaps somebody called from Beijing and said, “Hey, for sure we could make better use of those tusks and surely with Western capitals still shunning you guys could really do with a US $7 million cheque.”
News of the intended burning of the tusks inevitably divided opinion in Malawi. While some argued that selling them would encourage more poaching, others thought Malawi would lose twice for the jumbos are already dead anyway and we should not let such serious potential money be reduced to cold ash.
Both schools of thought are persuasive. With corruption levels still high in Malawi, some people with deep pockets and the right connections may kill more elephants and connive with authorities to pretend to have the ivory seized so that government should later legally sell it for them.
And indeed when the Malawi Revenue Authority seizes property whose owners are failing to pay taxes on them it does not destroy such property; it auctions it. So why not auction the ivory?
Suffice to say, however, there is more to controlling poaching and ivory smuggling than just making expensive bonfires from seized ivory. Look at how mis-treated are our game rangers. If they are not getting paid their field allowances on time, they are not being provided with the right gear.
Imagine a game ranger whose family back home has spent days on end without a proper meal comes face to face with a poacher laden with a pocketful of money.
Or imagine he is armed with an obsolete gun that can only fire one bullet at a time and his feet are shod in Zonke that is not ideal to navigate the thorn-filled foliage. And he is up against a poacher armed to the teeth with a machine gun and properly dressed for the jungle.
If we are to save the remaining 2,000 or so jumbos still left in Malawi let us invest in forest and game reserve and national park policing and management. Whether we get the money for such an investment from selling seized ivory is subject for another discussion.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :