In the past decade, the African elephant population has declined by almost 111 000, according to a 2016 report, partly due to poaching.
Malawi, identified as a “country of primary concern” by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), has lost half of its elephant population since the 1980s.
In recent years, however, political decision-makers have been empowered to act—thanks to a project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), implemented by UN Environment and executed by the Conservation Council of Nations (CCN).
Engaging policymakers and the judiciary to address poaching and the illegal wildlife trade in Africa has supported the country to strengthen its laws to protect elephants and rhinos.
In December 2016, to combat poaching trends, Parliament passed amendments to its Wildlife and National Parks Act that stiffened criminal penalties for poachers and traffickers of “listed species”, including the iconic mammals.
Under these amendments, convicted offenders face extended prison sentences of up to 30 years.
The new law has proven to have teeth.
Less than a year later, last October, a court sentenced convicted rhino poachers to 18 years in prison, the most severe penalty ever handed down for poaching in the country’s history.
A month later, a separate court sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment each.
If tougher penalties can effectively deter the killing of Africa’s iconic wildlife species, the law will transform a “country of primary concern” into one with a thriving wildlife population and, consequently, a thriving wildlife tourism industry that can support human development.
In the past two years, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia have taken similar steps to deter the killing and harvesting of Africa’s most emblematic creatures.
Legislators in these countries have formed multiparty parliamentary conservation caucuses to push for reforms.
United around a mutual interest in environmental conservation, these conservation caucuses have provided the architecture that policymakers need to combat the illegal wildlife trade.
In the past five years, 10 countries across sub-Saharan Africa have formed such caucuses.
They include Botswana, Gabon, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Six of these parliamentary conservation caucuses have been formed in the past three years as part of the GEF project, which began in 2015 and winds up later this year.
The project set out to increase the capacity and willingness of policymakers to assess and address poaching and illegal wildlife trade at the highest levels of government.
CCN has worked with parliamentary leaders in these 10 countries to establish and develop conservation caucuses.
The formation of these caucuses and CCN’s work with local stakeholders and leading conservation groups to educate members of Parliament has empowered legislators to act on sound information and enact policy reforms.
“The caucus model has helped to build a useful platform of interaction between policymakers the parliament, the executive, the judiciary and a wide range of stakeholders, including civil society organisations, private sector, academia, media, communities,” says Francisco Mucanheia, chairperson of the Committee on Agriculture, Economy and Environment in Mozambique’s National Assembly.
“As part of the caucus endeavour, important legislation was passed in a bipartisan consensus, and all main entities are committed to ensuring the law is effectively enforced for the good of conservation of wildlife and the environment, in general.”
Achieving great strides
Malawi Parliamentary Conservation Caucus co-chair Alex Major says the caucus has helped Malawi “achieve what it would not have otherwise achieved in the next 10 years”.
Parliamentarians and top-level government officials have embraced the model, enabling legislation to be passed that strengthens penalties for poachers. However, buy-in in the courts and among prosecutorial authorities is integral to the successful implementation of these new laws.
CCN, as part of this project, has brought in legal experts from the US and Europe to create a dialogue with prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement to address gaps in the enforcement of wildlife crime.
The road to universally effective enforcement of these laws is long, but significant progress has been ma