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Discussions of wildlife crime tend to focus on the poaching and trade of protected animals — from the capture of primates to the sale of rhino horn, ivory and cat skins, and more recently pangolins.

Just as problematic, however — in terms of both the money involved and ecological damage — is the illegal extraction and sale of local flora.

The scale and impact of such crimes is brought into sharp relief by an ongoing case in Malawi, which follows the largest field arrest by the country’s Department for National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) in November 2016.

In the case, 35 people — 23 Mozambicans, 10 Malawians and two Chinese — stand accused of six charges from entering Lengwe National Park without a permit to the illegal logging of mopane trees (a type of iron wood).

The case began with a tip-off, which led 11 DNPW rangers on a covert operation deep into Lengwe National Park, where there are no roads. About 6km from the Mozambican border, they found several deforested sites with thousands of logs.

They they captured 33 people. Soon after, they arrested Portuguese, Mozambican and Chinese businessmen who the rangers claim offered them bribes to save their workers and equipment.

According to Zitamar News, one of the Chinese nationals also has possible links to ivory smuggling in Mozambique.

The rangers also seized six 4×4 tractors, a road grader, a forklift truck, a bulldozer, a 30-tonne flatbed lorry, several cars, motorbikes and chainsaws. The equipment reflects the scale of the activity and the fact that there are no roads into the area. In turn, the prosecution claims that the loggers created their own roads and paths from Mozambique to extract the wood causing substantial ecological damage beyond the mopane trees felled.

One million trees damaged

According to initial estimates, the arrested had cut down around 240,000 trees, which — at a cost of about $37 per log at source — comes to $8.9 million. However, a subsequent analysis of satellite imagery at 50cm resolution from 2015 and 2016 around the immediate arrest sites by a conservation scientist increased the estimated damage to one million trees and $37 million.

Either way, the figures reveal the amounts of money that can be made from illegal logging. Indeed, in terms of the potential returns, such activities often exceed poaching.

For example, in May 2015, Singaporean authorities seized about 3.7 tonnes of illegal ivory with an estimated value at destination of about $8 million, which had been shipped from Kenya. However, this was a particularly big seizure with others often weighing in at around one tonne — like that found by Vietnamese Customs officials in a shipment from Kenya in October 2016.

Illegal logging is also extremely damaging for local environments. The mopane tree is a protected hardwood species, which is only found in Southern and East Africa, while its reddish colouring and resistance to termites make it popular as a building material as well as for crafts. However, a mopane tree takes hundreds of years to grow to a mature height, and is home to a variety of fauna — from rare birds and mammals to insects.

Mopanes also tend to grow where there is ground water, and are therefore found close to rivers and streams. As a result, the felling of these trees causes huge ecological damage. In the heavy rains this leads to flash floods and soil erosion, which also leads to siltation and sedimentation further downstream blocking major rivers courses, such as the Shire River in southern Malawi.


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