Malawi court sentences three men to 36 years for rhino poaching
By Penelope Paliani-Kamanga
LILONGWE – Liwonde magistrates’ court in the eastern part of Malawi has sentenced 28-year-old Esau Chikondi Billy and his two accomplices to 36 years imprisonment for poaching back rhinoceros at Liwonde National Park, setting a new precedence in the punishment for wildlife crime in the country.
Passing the sentence, chief resident magistrate Texious Masoamphambe said he had passed the stiff sentence bearing in mind the importance of wildlife to Malawi as it is a major generator of foreign investment.
The court convicted and sentenced Billy to 18 years imprisonment with hard labour for killing a black rhinoceros with intentions of trafficking its horns and his two accomplices to 10 and 8 years imprisonment sentence each respectively.
The magistrate said that the masses had so much disregarded of the importance of wildlife that they were just poaching anyhow and a stiff punishment was needed to curb poaching.
He described perpetrators of wildlife crimes as “enemies of the nation”. Giving a stiff warning, the magistrate shouted, “Hands off wildlife!”, adding that wildlife crimes were serious and those found with cases to answer would not be met with smiles in court.
Court documents indicate that the adult female black rhinoceros was discovered poached by rangers on 13 July in Liwonde National Park, which has been managed by African Parks since 2015 in partnership with Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW).
After the carcass had been located, the rhinoceros’ horns were subsequently found the same day in Billy’s possession using tracking technology. His arrest was done by a joint operation that was undertaken by the wildlife investigation units in the Malawi Police Services and DNPW.
Billy and his accomplices were charged with entering into a protected area without authority, conveying a weapon into a protected area, killing a listed species, possession of a weapon and possession of rhino horn (possession and dealing in government trophies, namely of listed species).
Magistrate Masoamphambe described the convicts as “enemies of the nation”, and warned perpetrators of wildlife crimes not to be met with smiles in his court
“The successes of this case are reflective of our wider efforts and achievements in Malawi to crack down on wildlife crime,” said the Director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Brighton Kumchedwa.
“We now have a law enforcement and legal system that are serious about these offences and protecting our country’s wildlife, and we’re proud that these have delivered swift justice.”
The new specialist wildlife investigation units in the country have made over 100 arrests of wildlife traffickers and traders since their recent establishment. Conviction rates have also increased dramatically as a result of the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust’s wildlife justice programme, which has seen a 96% conviction rate and a total of 85 custodial sentences passed in 2017 to date.
In contrast, between 2010 and 2014, 60 trafficking convictions were made with an average fine of just US$40. No prison sentences had been passed. The 18-year prison sentence is the lengthiest judgment passed to date. The sentences, amounting to an effective total of 36 years in prison with hard labour and no option of a fine, are the first and most severe to be handed down for a serious wildlife crime since Malawi strengthened penalties by amending its National Parks and Wildlife Act in December last year.
“Rarely in wildlife crime are the perpetrators brought to justice,” said African Parks’ Craig Reid, park manager of Liwonde National Park.
“The speed at which the poachers were located, arrested, tried and convicted is a testament to the Malawian government and its partners’ commitment to protecting their wildlife and taking a stand against criminal activity. This serves as a major deterrent to would-be poachers as well as an example to other African nations on how to carry out effective wildlife law enforcement.”
The rapid response to the poaching incident in the park is a testament to the effectiveness of Liwonde National Park’s law enforcement team, which has achieved some major accomplishments over the past two years since African Parks assumed management in 2015. Significant investments have been made in training rangers, providing needed equipment and high level technology, all aimed at bringing an end to wildlife crime in the area.
The overhaul of law enforcement in Liwonde has led to many arrests and seizures, including 27,000 wire snares, 66 gin traps, 16 illegal firearms, 43 kg of ivory and one set of rhino horns. Liwonde was also home to the historic ‘500 Elephants’ initiative, which was done in collaboration with the DNPW and completed in August of this year.
“Malawi made a strong example of the consequences for wildlife crime with the progressive ruling,” said Jonathan Vaughan, CEO of Lilongwe Wildlife Trust.
“This heralds the advances made by the government and the coordinated efforts of all parties involved, establishing that Malawi is no longer a soft target for perpetrators of these crimes,” he said.