The world’s poorest country is to make the world’s most expensive bonfire. On Thursday, Malawi will set fire to ivory worth more than £5m, in an extravagant gesture designed to demonstrate its commitment to wildlife conservation and the fight against the colossal worldwide business of wildlife crime.
Almost four tons of ivory is held in Malawi’s stockpile, and it is going to burn the lot. This will be done on the roof of the parliament building, and the march to the incineration will be led by the president, Peter Mutharika, wearing a polo shirt bearing the message “Stop Wildlife Crime”.
The plan follows the burning in Ethiopia earlier this month of six tons of tusks and carved ivory. There are reports that Kenya will burn a further 15 tons in the coming week. But the Malawi burning is the most remarkable.
Malawi has been hammered by a devastating corruption scandal, nicknamed Cashgate, in which around £35 m was believed to have been taken out of government funds. Earlier this year, flooding killed nearly 300 people and made 230,000 homeless.
“It is really inspiring that the Malawi government is prepared to make wildlife conservation a priority in these difficult times,” said Jonny Vaughan, general manager of the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, which has played a significant part in campaigning against the ivory trade. But this is more than a national issue. Malawi also functions as an entrepot, lying between three major elephant populations in hotpots for poaching: the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, Selous in Tanzania and Niassa in Mozambique. This is part of an international illegal business worth billions, and even sober estimates suggest it is killing 20,000 elephants a year.
“The crucial point here is not how much the ivory is worth in illegal markets,” said Mr Vaughan. “What matters is the value of a live elephant. It’s been estimated that in purely commercial terms a living elephant is worth 75 times more than a dead one. That’s how important the tourism industry is.”
That is partly why the Malawian government has opted to take the issue with great and public seriousness, despite the many other problems that confront the country. “Tourism needs wildlife and our economy needs tourism,” said Patricia Liabuba, director of tourism.
It is estimated that between 2009 and June 2014, 170 tons of ivory were traded illegally (Lilongwe Wildlife Trust)
The campaign against wildlife crime is a joint effort between the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. It has included a petition of 7,000 signatures calling on the government to ban all domestic and international trade in ivory, to destroy ivory stockpiles, to invest more money in anti-poaching and border protection training, and to impose stricter penalties for wildlife criminals and actually enforce them. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The really heartening thing about this is they way people of the land have responded,” said Dr Cheryl Mvula, trustee of Lilongwe Wildlife Centre and consultant for Born Free Foundation.
“This is not something that’s being imposed from the top. It’s something the people of Malawi really want to see happening.”
Ian Redmond, spokesperson for Malawi’s Stop Wildlife Crime campaign, applauded the “bold” move by Malawi. “If the killing of elephants is to stop,” he said, “it is essential that the world stops seeing ivory as something of great value and high status.”
The “true value” of elephants, he said “lies not in their front teeth, or even in the fact that tourists will flock to take photos of them, but in the work they do every day as ‘gardeners of the forests and savannahs’.”
Elephants are now extinct in Sierra Leone and Senegal, while Malawi still has a population of 2,344 (Alamy)
“Every week each adult elephant spreads a ton of organic manure, enriching the soil and increasing its productivity,” Mr Redmond said.
“Their dung is usually packed with seeds. Elephants disperse more seeds of more species for longer distances than any other animal, thereby planting the trees of the future. The protection of Africa’s forests and woodlands is essential for climate stability and a healthy environment; protecting elephants today is protecting the trees of tomorrow.”
There are further benefits that come from looking after wildlife. “Biodiversity loss will ultimately impact on human wellbeing, from crop failure and food shortages to disease,” Mr Vaughan said.
Thursday’s march will involve high-ranking officials, 600 schoolchildren and dozens of gule wamkule dancers, usually only allowed to perform at weddings and funerals, dressed as elephants.