Malawi’s first Wildlife Detection Dog Unit (WDDU) was officially launched on August 9th at Lilongwe’s Kamuzu International Airport, with the canines and their handlers now hard at work sniffing out illicit wildlife products at the country’s airports and key border posts.
Attending the launch were Her Excellency British High Commissioner in Malawi Holly Tett, Director of Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife and Conservation Award winner Brighton Kumchedwa, Inspector General of Malawi Police Rodney Jose and Lilongwe Wildlife Trust Campaigns Director Kathryn Kachimanga.
Malawi, which has been identified by international experts at CITES as Southern Africa’s principal transit hub for ivory trafficking, has been taking an increasingly tough stance against the illegal wildlife trade (IWT), which is now estimated by the UN to be worth over US$23billion annually. The new canine unit, a joint collaboration between Malawi Police Service, The Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and conservation charity Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT), is one of a number of recommendations that were highlighted in Malawi’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Review, co-authored by LWT, published in 2015. The introduction of the unit follows the establishment of a specialised Wildlife Crime Investigations Unit, the launch of improved court initiatives through the Wildlife Justice Programme and the introduction of tougher penalties through the amendment of the National Parks and Wildlife Act as one of the many ways Malawi is firmly tackling wildlife crime within its borders.
The illegal wildlife trade is now the fourth most lucrative transnational crime in the world, after drugs, weapons and human trafficking. Ivory fetches up to US$2,100 per kilogramme, while rhino horn sells for up to US$60,000 per kilogramme on the black market in Asia. Rhino poaching has increased nearly 3,000 per cent since 2007, while the Great Elephant Census, a series of country surveys on the number and distribution of Africa’s remaining elephant populations, shows that savannah elephant populations declined by 30 per cent
(144,000 individuals) between 2007 and 2014. In Malawi, over 50 per cent of elephants have been lost in the last 25 years, with Kasungu National Park’s elephant population down to around just 40, from 2,000 in the 1980s.
Malawi has been implicated in some of the largest ivory seizures in the world: 6.5 tonnes of ivory – the second largest seizure in the history of the illegal ivory trade – confiscated in Singapore in 2002 had been shipped from Malawi. Figures from the ROUTES Flying Under The Radar report, published in 2017, show that between January 2009 and August 2016, Kamuzu International Airport in Malawi accounted for the second highest number of ivory seizures worldwide, at 42, topped only by Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, with 48. This makes Malawi’s two international airports – Lilongwe and Blantyre – a key priority for the WDDU.
The detection dogs have been trained to detect ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, bushmeat, animal skins, hippo teeth, firearms and ammunition and other contraband. They are chosen for their playfulness and friendliness – traits that make good detection dogs – and have been paired with handlers from the Malawi Police Service or DNPW. Dogs have a sense of smell 40 times that of humans and can detect even the smallest amounts of wildlife contraband, such as ivory or rhino horn dust. The WDDU will conduct border and airport searches, road-block searches, intelligence-based village/building searches, area/grid searches and searches at cargo distribution sites.
Brighton Kumchedwa, Director of DNPW said: ‘Malawi, for a long time, has been used as a conduit for illegal wildlife products, but now, with the launch of the Wildlife Detection Dog Unit, we have opened a new chapter in the conservation of our country’s wildlife.’