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Illegal extraction, sale of flora: The case of logging in Malawi’s Lengwe Park

However, the Malawian case also highlights another problem; namely, the challenges authorities face in successfully catching and prosecuting those involved in wildlife crimes. The Lengwe Park authorities were first tipped off about the logging of mapone close to the Mozambican border in September 2016. However, when the rangers visited the area they found that all those involved had run away. Then, when they trekked back across the park in November, the rangers had to arrest and then move the 35 prisoners and all their equipment across to the park headquarters. This involved an arduous journey that took several days and required the prisoners to use the heavy machinery to create a makeshift track for the 30-tonne flatbed lorry and other equipment. Indeed, the logistics of the arrest are such, that it has already sparked interest among documentary makers. Then come the legal proceedings — which, in this instance, began with six witnesses for the prosecution — from those involved in the arrests to customs officials and an environmental expert. Then, last week, the court heard a no case to answer motion, which saw the defence question whether the accused could be directly linked to the five charges laid. These include illegal entry into Malawi, being in Lengwe National Park without a permit, smuggling equipment into Malawi, having a weapon in a protected area (the equipment defined as such due to its use for deforestation), and the exploitation of a protected species. More specifically, the defence questioned who had brought the equipment into the park, and whether the prosecution could prove that it was the accused. Even if it was smuggled into the country by those arrested, were they working under the instructions of their employers or had they, as the defence lawyers suggested, strayed into the park due to the lack of a proper boundary? Policing and securing of flora and fauna Did the two businessmen come to bribe the park rangers or did they come to rescue their errant workers? How could the prosecution lawyers prove that the logs found at the site were felled by the team? And how could they prove that the recent felling of trees was only the work of those arrested, and not other illegal loggers and charcoal burners? In response, the prosecution emphasised how most of the accused were foreigners who were found within a protected forest without park entry permits and entry visas, with heavy lifting equipment clearly associated with a commercial logging operation, and surrounded by thousands of recently cut logs in a newly cleared area that had been pristine mopane woodland just months previously. Such questions of proof are not unique to this particular case. On the contrary, the policing and securing of flora and fauna is a common problem across the continent, as is the evidence required to reach a successful prosecution. Both issues are exacerbated by the corruption that often allows this activity to take place, or the criminals to avoid justice. For these reasons, the Lengwe National Park case is of interest to environmentalists both in and beyond Malawi. If successful, the case — in the context of the allegations made — will provide an example of how criminals cannot always bribe their way out of trouble and will hopefully send a strong message to other current and potential loggers. However, if those accused are cleared of all of the charges laid, then the case will raise questions about the kind of extensive forensic evidence required to bring wildlife criminals to justice. Gabrielle Lynch, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Warwick, UK (g.lynch@warwick.ac.uk; @GabrielleLynch6)