The high court in Blantyre has been hailed for throwing out all appeal grounds and doubling the sentence for 35 foreign and Malawian nationals caught logging illegally in Lengwe National Park in Chikwawa.
The sentences range from a maximum of 18 months to 36 months imprisonment with hard labour (IHL) without an option for a fine.
In May this year, the Blantyre Magistrate’s Court sentenced the 23 Mozambicans, two Chinese and 10 Malawians convicted on three counts of entering into a protected area, conveying, possession and using prohibited weapons in a protected area and disturbance of indigenous species in a protected area.
They were caught extracting Mopane trees from the extension area of Lengwe National Park and transporting them into Mozambique.
However, the convicts through their lawyers George Kaliwo and Joseph Kamkwasi appealed against the ruling.
But last Friday, Justice Dorothy Nyakaunda Kamanga declared the sentence by the lower court manifestly inadequate and doubled it to a maximum of 36 months IHL. She also ordered them to pay an additional fine of K50 000 despite having all their weapons forfeited.
Commenting on the matter, chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Climate Change, Welani Chilenga described the development as good news.
Said Chilenga: “This is good news and we are optimistic that it will help deter would be offenders. We encourage the courts to keep passing such tough sentences so that we deal with wildlife crimes in the country.
“On our part, we made sure Parliament passed the new Wildlife Amendment Bill, we encourage the Department of Parks and Wildlife to make sure it is implemented and lobby for enough funding when making budget proposals so that they operate efficiently.”
On the other hand, African Parks who are managers of Lengwe and other reserves in the country bemoaned poor funding saying it compromises their work particularly monitoring.
“For a long time Malawi has been a soft spot for wildlife crimes due to lenient sentences. We are happy that the courts are now giving punishments in accordance with the new Wildlife Act.
This is a welcome development as it shows that our work is been appreciated. This also gives us the impetus to work hard,” he said.
Director of Parks and Wildlife Brighton Kumchedwa said the decision by the upper court demonstrates massive support from the courts and shows that wildlife crime is now classified as serious crimes.
“At the same time it is giving us hope that the battle against wildlife crime will soon be won. We are shortly going to increase staff and increase surveillance,” he added.
The 35 were discovered logging into the protected area on November 2, 2016, approximately five kilometres from the Mozambique border. Over 240 000 Mopane trees are said to have been extracted by the convict since March 2016.
This comes against the background of wanton cutting down of trees in the country’s forest reserves forcing government to deploy soldiers in some reserves to curb the vice.
Maximum sentence for the offence is payment of K100 000 or an amount not less than the value in the specimen used in commissioning of the offence and ten years Imprisonment with hard labour.