By Gershom Ndhlovu
“A ZAMBIAN woman has been arrested in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for wearing ivory bracelets. Ruth Mwale aged 46 was arrested at Bole International Airport Tuesday morning upon her arrival from Bangkok, Thailand en-route to Zambia.”
When this story broke out on various Zambian internet forums including Facebook and other social media networks, the arguments for the arrest and against that ensued bordered on separating the patriotic from the unpatriotic. The “patriotic” thought the arrest was wrong as the Ethiopians apparently did not “understand” the Zambian cultural dynamics while the few “unpatriotic”—I was one of those—supported the arrest.
To reiterate the question that was asked, were the Ethiopian authorities right to arrest Mwale for just a piece of ivory on her wrist? Put it in another way, would the Zambian government through the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) arrest anybody wearing an ivory bangle?
For all those who care to remember, around 1992, a few months into the new MMD administration, the then Minister of Tourism, Lieutenant-General Christon Tembo, now late, led government, non-government organisations (NGOs) officials and ordinary citizens, in torching a bonfire of ivory, rhino horns and guns seized from poachers held by ZAWA which was then known as National Parks and Wildlife Service. This public event was held at the service headquarters in Chilanga.
The ivory burning event in Zambia followed on the heels of a similar event in Kenya which was led by none other than that country’s then president, Daniel arap Moi in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Both these events were largely supported by World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) with a promise for further funding and logistical support of wildlife management in the countries involved. Whether that was fulfilled or not is a different issue altogether.
These two events were born from the recognition by the two countries and the wider international community of depleting elephant populations in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa wrought by widespread and heavily commercialised poaching that was taking place then. In Zambia, heavy poaching was going on in the Mulobezi and Kaoma/Itezhi Tezhi precincts of the Kafue National Park, Luangwa North and South National Parks and Lower Zambezi National Park.
Brazen Zambian poachers were even crossing into Zimbabwean national parks such as Matusadona, Mana Pools and Hwange national parks where, unfortunately, a lot of suspects lost their lives from uncompromising wildlife rangers who had no mercy for armed poachers.
Although 20 years ago these issues were very much in the media limelight with what was the then Species Protection Department of the Anti-Corruption Commission, I don’t know if it is the case these days as, admittedly, I only read Zambian newspapers on the internet which only post political stories.
Again, those who care to remember will know that in the last three years or so, outgoing Minister of Tourism, Catherine Namugala has been at the forefront of trying to have trade in elephants and ivory downgraded from Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which totally bans such trade, to Appendix II which allows partial trade.
Zambia is supported by Zimbabwe, Namibia and Tanzania, all of which claim to have substantial stocks of ivory that they need to dispose of. But opponents of the proposal such as the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an independent campaigning organisation committed to bringing about change that protects the natural world from environmental crime and abuse, argue that the downgrade will allow contraband ivory find its way into the legitimate system and consequently fuel poaching.
Other critics of the proposal believe that Zambia is being pressured by China, one of its largest trading partners with huge investments in the country, whose noveau riche seek ivory and products of other exotic and equally endangered wildlife species like rhino and tiger as status symbols of their newly found wealth.
It is unimaginable that there is no illegal trade going on in ivory or xanja as the Chinese call it when there are so many Chinese nationals in Zambia than at any other time. It obviously goes on in the streets of Lusaka as it did all those years ago when the onus to export the contraband was left to the Zambian contacts. Poaching with the heavy stakes involved, fuels corruption at many levels—from low level wildlife guards, to policemen manning roadblocks to customs officials who allow the goods out at ports of exit.
Ivory is a proscribed item and therefore Mwale or whoever has possession of it commits an offence under the ZAWA Act. There is no cultural excuse for wearing a proscribed wildlife animal part. If such an argument were to hold, then the Ngonis—of the fwaka yachiNgoni fame—and the old women of Gwembe must be allowed to smoke cannabis at will as they have done so since time immemorial. Here I have in mind my Lozi relatives some of whom are my mulamus, nieces and nephews to desist from wearing ivory for any reason.
Only elephants, and no one else, should wear ivory. As such, not only the Ethiopian authorities should arrest Zambians wearing ivory bangles on their territory, Zambians should also play their part for as long as elephants and elephant products remain on CITES Appendix III.