Malawi on Monday burned 2.6 tonnes of ivory in the northern city of Mzuzu after a court ordered its destruction, despite a cross-border dispute over whether the elephant tusks smuggled from Tanzania should be saved as legal evidence against poachers.
Tanzania had been protesting the torching of the 781 pieces of ivory arguing that the tusks were part of evidence to be brought before a Tanzanian court against poachers and had obtained a 90-day stay order in September after Malawi indicated it was going to burn the stockpile.
The elephant tusks were set alight outside a nature sanctuary in the small northern city of Mzuzu, 480 kilometres (300 miles) from the administrative capital Lilongwe.
Watched by police, court and wildlife officials, the fire sent a billow of smoke into the sky.
In 2013, the Malawi Revenue Authority impounded the ivory, valued at nearly $3 million, at the Songwe border post from alleged smugglers travelling from Dar es Salaam to Lilongwe.
It is believed that the suspects in Tanzania had been in cahoots with two Malawian brothers, Chancy and Patrick Kaunda, to transport the ivory to Lilongwe, but the two were intercepted, arrested and later fined $5,500 for their part in trafficking the tusks by Malawi High Court in 2015.
Tanzania had won a three-month court order to postpone the burning until it concludes the case in Dar es Salaam.
Malawian judge Dingiswayo Madise on March 2, 2016 ordered the government to burn the ivory on March 14 publicly after Tanzania failed to apply for a further delay.
Ironically, the government of Malawi, despite expressing commitment to end ivory trade, secretly sought a court injunction but Justice Madise threw out the application on Friday, March 11.
“This is a milestone for Malawi. We will not allow the country to be exploited as a market of this illegal trade," Brighton Kumchedwa, director of Malawi's parks and wildlife department, who witnessed the burning of the ivory at Mzuzu Nature Sanctuary said.
Through a government lawyer, Christon Ghambi, Tanzania accused Malawi of frustrating its efforts to prosecute its case.
“Tanzania is not happy with the decision to burn ivory. It will affect cases in Tanzania. It will be hard to prove the case as the ivory has been destroyed,” said Ghambi.
He said Tanzania was hopeful that Malawi would consider not burning the remaining pieces of ivory so that suspects in Tanzania can also be convicted like the Kaunda brothers.
Malawi has another four tonnes of stockpiled ivory that it plans to destroy.
In March last year, Kenya set fire to 15 tonnes of ivory, which conservationists said then was the largest-ever stockpile burned in Africa.
Wildlife experts say poaching has halved Malawi's elephant population from 4,000 in the 1980s to just 2,000 now.
"Malawi is vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers operating between the country and the surrounding countries of Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique," Jonathan Vaughan, director of Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, told AFP.
"It is being targeted by both poachers and traffickers."
Mr Kumchedwa said Malawi was satisfied that the ivory had been burnt, adding that it showed government’s commitment to fight ivory trade.
Quizzed on why the government tried to stop the burning of ivory, Mr Kumchedwa said the law had provision for appeal.
“All the government wanted to see was if it (court) could give room for public debate on whether to burn the ivory or not,” he said.
Malawi is widely considered a weak link in the fight against illegal ivory trade due to graft, weak wildlife legislation and poor law enforcement.