Conviction of wildlife trafficking network for financial crimes is a major milestone in Malawi

Malawi’s justice system has scored a major victory in its fight again illegal wildlife trade with the conviction of three key members of the notorious Lin-Zhang wildlife trafficking network.

Lilongwe Chief Resident Magistrate Court delivered the sentences for serious money laundering on 5 April 2023, a proud day for the prosecution and court monitoring teams of Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and the Malawi Police.

The Lin-Zhang network is headed by Chinese national Yunhua Lin, who was convicted for rhino horn trafficking and money laundering and sentenced to 14 years in jail in 2021 in Malawi.

Yunhua Lin, left, at the court in Malawi, 28 Sept 2021 (c) EIA

The network is one of the most prolific wildlife trafficking gangs in southern Africa, trading in ivory, rhino horn, pangolins and more.

At the hearing earlier this month, Quinhua Zhang and Li Hao Yuan, the wife and son-in-law of Lin, were sentenced to six and eight years in prison respectively for laundering almost 508 million Malawian kwacha (approximately $494,780) derived from proceeds of crime.

Lin Huixin, the daughter of Yunhua Lin, was convicted of her activities in illegal money exchange amounting to $310,000 and fined 200,000 kwacha.

The case illustrates how wildlife crime and finance crime go hand-in-hand and how assets generated from wildlife smuggling can be laundered through illegal foreign exchange and into other forms of crime to continue generating funds for a syndicate even after key members have been arrested and jailed.

Malawi elephants (c) EIA

Zhang, Li and Lin were convicted of money laundering activities which took place between September 2017 and June 2021. Yet while Zhang and Li were both arrested in 2019 and imprisoned in 2020 for illegal possession of rhino horn and pangolin scales,  imprisonment never stopped Lin Huixin, the only free core member of the network at the time, from coordinating and conducting illegal financial transactions to generate significant funds for the family.

Little did the network know that the Malawian wildlife authorities and the police continued to follow their illicit financial activities. The hard work of the investigating officers and prosecutors paid off and Malawi’s judiciary delivered another blow to the Lin-Zhang network.

EIA applauds the successes the Malawian authorities have had in disrupting this syndicate.

Prosecution successes also provide opportunities for us to identify how criminal justice can be strengthened. The scale of the Lin-Zhang network’s money laundering crimes is staggering in relation to the economy of Malawi and the Chief Resident Magistrate observed that the maximum sentence of life imprisonment would be justified.

However, the court was lenient after the family repaid 200 million kwacha to the State and pleaded guilty to all charges. Considering the scale of the Lin-Zhang network’s trafficking activities that spanned at least a decade, this sum would have had little  impact on the family’s assets. Indeed, no assets were frozen or seized from the Lin family, undermining the efforts to cripple the syndicate and avert future crimes.

Wildlife trafficking involving ivory, rhino horns and pangolins in the region is far from being eradicated, but the conviction of key members of the Lin-Zhang network on financial crimes marks a new milestone in Malawi’s fight against wildlife trafficking and is a good example for other nations to follow.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go to ensure the punishment meets the crime.