An elephant. Picture: THE TIMES
An elephant. Picture: THE TIMES

MALAWI on Monday burnt 2.6 tonnes of ivory smuggled in from Tanzania, following a cross-border dispute over whether or not the elephant tusks should be saved as legal evidence against poachers.

Tanzania had succeeded in delaying the burning since September, but a court in Malawi this month ordered wildlife authorities to publicly destroy the 781 pieces of ivory — valued at nearly $3m.

"This is a milestone for Malawi. We will not allow the country to be exploited as a market of this illegal trade," Bright Kumchedwa, director of Malawi’s parks and wildlife department, said.

"We want to demonstrate to the world that the country is committed to eradicating wildlife crime." The stockpile was set alight outside a nature sanctuary in the small northern city of Mzuzu, 480km from the administrative capital Lilongwe.

Watched by police, court and wildlife officials, the fire sent a billow of smoke into the sky.

Two Malawian siblings were last year fined $5,500 for their part in trafficking the tusks, which were intercepted by Malawian customs officials in 2013.

Tanzania had won a three-month court order to postpone the burning, but did not apply for a further delay, Mr Kumchedwa said.

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 stockpile burnt 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, said.

"It is being targeted by both poachers and traffickers." Malawi is widely considered a weak link in the fight against the illegal ivory trade due to graft, weak wildlife legislation and poor law enforcement.

Ivory is highly sought-after for jewellery and decorative objects and much of it is smuggled to China and Thailand, where many wealthy shoppers buy ivory trinkets as a sign of financial success.