Jane Flanagan, Cape Town
One of Africa’s most prolific wildlife smuggling rings has been put out of business after nine traffickers were given hefty jail terms by a Malawian court.
The gang, which included seven Chinese people, were given sentences that prosecutors hope will help to end the poor nation’s reputation as southern Africa’s transit hub for wildlife smuggling.
Quinhua Zhang, 43, regarded as the matriarch of the Lin-Zhang gang, was jailed for 11 years for illegally possessing rhino horn and an unlicensed firearm. She had been on bail for trafficking charges when she was arrested last year, the court was told.
Her husband, Yunhua Lin, 46, who was on the run for three months after a raid on their home and is known as “fingers” because he is missing three digits on his left hand, is being sentenced separately. Their son-in-law, Li Hao Yuan, 29, was also jailed for 11 years for possessing rhino horn, pangolin scales and an illegal weapon. He was also facing earlier charges for illegally possessing animal parts.
Co-ordinated raids on the gang last year found a cache of unlicensed weapons as well as endangered animal parts including ivory, crocodile skins, pangolin scales, horn and hippo teeth.
“This is indeed a victory for Malawi — and a victory for wildlife in particular,” Brighton Kumchedwa, director of national parks in the former British colony, said, adding that he hoped the sentences would serve as a deterrent.
“Malawi is no longer a playground for the likes of the Lin-Zhang syndicate that exploits our natural heritage, damages our economy, incites corruption and poses a risk to national security.”
The stiff sentences followed the harshest ever handed down to a foreigner in Tanzania last year, where Yang Fenglan, a Chinese trafficker whose expertise in shipping elephant tusks earned her the nickname “the ivory queen”, was jailed for 15 years.
Prosecutors told the hearing in Lilongwe, the capital, that the Lin-Zhang gang was part of an organised criminal network operating in Malawi for at least a decade. The horns came from the endangered black rhinos butchered at the Liwonde National Park, where in 2016 Prince Harry spent weeks volunteering on a project to move 500 elephants to the area. He revisited the park during his visit to Africa last September.
Concerted international support for Malawi’s anti-poaching efforts has included Operation Corded, a programme to train local game rangers, provided by the British army. In May last year Mathew Talbot, 22, a soldier from the West Midlands, was killed by an elephant when his patrol surprised a family group of the animals in long grass.
While Malawi’s game animals have sharply fallen in number through hunting and poaching in recent decades, efforts are under way to restore some populations. Seventeen black rhino, a critically endangered species, were moved last year from South Africa to Malawi in one of the most ambitious cross-border game transfers.
Amid deteriorating relations between China and America, the latest case was picked up by the US Embassy in Malawi as it issued a statement on Facebook with a thinly veiled critique of Beijing. “The US calls on all nations, particularly destinations for Africa’s wildlife, to move beyond words, take action, and speak out against trans- national criminal networks,” it said.
Pangolins are the world’s most- trafficked animals and are targeted for their scales which, like rhino horn, are made of keratin. Neither horn nor scales have any proven medicinal value but they are used in traditional Chinese medicine to help with ailments ranging from lactation difficulties to arthritis.