The ‘Lin-Zhang Gang’ is a prolific wildlife trafficking syndicate that has been operating for over a decade. Our investigations reveal that members of the syndicate who are mostly Chinese have been operating in Malawi under the guise of running legal businesses. By Madalitso Wills Kateta, participant in the Journalism Capacity Building Workshop in Malawi in 2021. First published in Marawi Post.
The call only took ten minutes before an agreement was made to meet at a Lodge in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city. Pausing as villagers in possession of a pangolin, we offered to sell the animal to our target, a Chinese national whom we had been told is involved in the wildlife black market.
But before the deal was struck, Andy, as we are going to call the Chinese national, abruptly pulled out.
A few days later, the courts sentenced two Malawian and nine Chinese nationals including Lin Yunhua, leader of southern Africa’s notorious ‘Lin-Zhang Gang’ to 14-years imprisonment for possession of rhino horns.
The ‘Lin-Zhang Gang’ is a prolific wildlife trafficking syndicate that has been operating for over a decade. Our investigations reveal that members of the syndicate who are mostly Chinese have been operating in Malawi under the guise of running legal businesses.
The Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi (CIJM) also found out that the syndicate is also linked to drugs, arms trafficking, and money laundering. It depends on non-suspecting local operatives to smuggle illicit materials out of the country.
Mostly sourced from the eastern part of southern Malawi, the pangolins are usually trafficked by local unsuspecting villagers in either maize sacks or traveling bags. These locals who do not have any direct link to the syndicate members later pass the live Pangolin to a local operative who has direct link to the Syndicate.
“I don’t know what you are talking about, I don’t buy or sell any wild animals,” Andy told CIJM over the phone during our last conversation and since after the last discussion his line could not be reached anymore.
A background check on Andy revealed that he had been running a martial arts school for almost a year though it had not registered any student.
While CIJM’s investigation did not establish that Andy is not part of the gang, its sources disclosed in detail how Andy has been regularly traveling to the Mangochi and Machinga districts in Southern Malawi which have recently become an epicenter of Pangolins trade.
According to data from the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT), pangolin-related crimes have tripled since 2019 and this is attributed to an increase in trafficking despite strong enforcement of the law.
According to Amina Daudi Tepani, Mangochi Police Public Relations Officer, most of the people that have been caught with live and dead pangolins claim that the animals are supplied by their counterparts in Mozambique.
“Most of the people that we have arrested on pangolin trafficking are Malawians who claim to have sourced the animals from Mozambique,” said Tepani.
Recently the police in Mangochi arrested two pangolin traffickers, Witness Salikonde,49,l and Rashid White Jusa, 55, for possession of dead pangolins. Contrary to section 110(b) of National Parks and Wild life Act, the two claimed to be traveling with the animals to an unspecified market in Lilongwe.
When CIJM visited Andy’s school, located in the premises of one popular lodge in the capital, we learned that the school had since been closed and the owner had shifted his line of business into agro-business.
However, sources familiar with the school and its owner told CIJM that the school was just a smokescreen for the underground environmental dealings including buying ivory, rhino horns, and precious stones which the owner has been engaged in.
One of CIJM’s sources whom we are just going to call Isiah told us that the Chinese national has been dealing in several environmental products including precious stones and he was very positive that he was also involved in some wildlife dealings.
“The school has been operational since 2018, but it has at no single time enrolled students, raising questions on how the owner manages to pay for the premise’s rentals as well as survive,” the source said.
Malawi has recently been the hub of international wildlife crimes driven by a syndicate of some Chinese and Malawian nationals in the sub-Saharan African region.
According to court records, a total of 14 members of the wildlife trafficking syndicate - 11 Chinese and 3 Malawians - have since 2019 been sent to Malawian prisons on different wildlife and environmental crimes including ivory, rhino horn trafficking.
Recently, live pangolins and pangolin scales have become a common feature of Malawi’s illegal wildlife trade.
As the Chinese connection in Malawi’s rising wildlife crimes continues to escalate, the Chinese embassy in Lilongwe says China strongly opposes wildlife crimes.
Lu Chang, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Malawi said China condemns linking the misconduct of individual Chinese nationals in Africa to China as a country.
“Wildlife crimes are common in Africa. China believes that ‘killing animals for cash’ and ‘killing for fun’ are equally environmental crimes, animals such as lions, elephants, and other animal species are being hunted across Africa,” Chang said.
For instance, in 2013, China and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding to protect wildlife.
Since 2014, China has provided financial support to countries such as Kenya and Tanzania for wildlife conservation.
This year, the China-Zimbabwe Wildlife Conservation Foundation is now rescuing drought-affected wildlife in the National Park of Zimbabwe.
China National Forestry and Grassland Administration, together with the General Administration of Customs, visited Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, Uganda, Ethiopia, and other African countries to hold seminars with the theme of endangered species conservation, calling on the public to stay away from the illegal trade of ivory and other wildlife products.
According to available data, illegal wildlife trade is one of the most profitable criminal enterprises with the United Nations estimates that globally the trade is worth between $7 billion and $23 billion annually.
Despite this commitment to protecting Africa’s wildlife, China has been portrayed by the media as a catalyst to the souring wildlife crimes.
A 2019 article entitled African Wildlife Conservation – China’s Actions Speak Louder Than Words observes that it is not only the Chinese that are involved in wildlife crimes. The article observes that some western hunters have also been involved in wildlife crimes but their activities have not attracted media attention.
While there has been a 44% decline in wildlife species around the world in the past four decades as a result of poaching and illegal wildlife trade, the paper observes that Africa which is most abundant in wildlife continues to face a decrease in wildlife species and calls for shared responsibility to safeguard the continent’s wildlife.
“All countries and international organizations engaged in exchanges and cooperation with African countries should, from the perspective of safeguarding Africa’s sound natural environment and sustainable development, earnestly shoulder their responsibilities and fulfill their obligations by strengthening international cooperation on African wildlife conservation,” reads part of the report.
Our investigations indicate that the situation has been made worse by corrupt elements within the law enforcement agencies who have been aiding the criminals to externalize wildlife products like ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, and in extreme cases live pangolins to China and other countries.
According to data from the Malawi Police and the Department of Parks and Wildlife, there has been a rise in pangolin trafficking cases as compared to ivory and rhino horn trafficking crimes. Of the 212 wildlife crimes registered between August 2017 and July 2021, 32 were in relation to the pangolin trade.
While there has been a downward trend in ivory and rhino horn trafficking, the arrest of a Gambian national Sainy Jagne by Thai customs authorities in March 2017 exposed the extensive links enjoyed by wildlife gangs and environmental criminals. Jagne was caught with 422 pieces of ivory weighing 330 kg valued at $480,000.00. The 330 kg of elephant ivory was seized in Bangkok in March 2017 and seven accused persons have since been arrested concerning this seizure.
While our investigation indicates that Malawi is attractive to wildlife criminals because it has always been considered a low-risk location for the gangs, Brighton Kumchedwa, Director of the Department of Parks and Wildlife, says this is no longer the case.
Kumchedwa says the amendment of the country’s wildlife legislation in 2017 and change in strategy in the investigation of wildlife crimes has strengthened Malawi’s position in the fight against wildlife crimes.
“Following the change of strategy in investigations of wildlife crimes, Malawi is no longer a hub for environmental gangs, however, we don’t want to just create a shift we want to decisively deal with wildlife crime through corroborations with other players in the region,” says Kumchedwa.
The result of this shift in strategy according to Police and Court records has been successful with a conviction rate of around 90% of people arrested for wildlife crimes since 2017.
According to James Kadadzera, Spokesperson of the Malawi Police Service, the police have also heightened their efforts in cracking wildlife crime and they are closely working with the Department of Parks and Wildlife in the effort.
Mary Rice, Executive Director of London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, the crackdown on nine members of the Ling-Zang syndicate following countless obstacles is a demonstration of Malawi’s political will and determination to fight wildlife crimes.
“Fighting crime on this scale demands sophistication, corroboration, courage and tenacity. Malawi should be immensely proud and other African countries battling the scourge of illegal wildlife trade would do well to follow this example of global leadership,’’ said Rice in a statement.
Meanwhile, as more individual Chinese continue to be arrested in connection with environmental and wildlife crimes, there is a need to draw a thin line between China and the wildlife criminals that are tarnishing the good image of China, a good neighbor who is committed to conserving Africa’s wildlife.