Conviction in a Former Playground for Kingpins Could Save African Wildlife

“For Malawi, this shows that there’s no sacred cow,” Mr. Kaonga said. “Money cannot save you, and there’s a limit to what corruption can actually get you.”

The Chinese embassy in Malawi did not respond to questions about the case.

Eighteen other members of Mr. Lin’s network — including four close relatives — have also been prosecuted for crimes including possession of ivory, pangolin scales, rhino horn, illegal firearms and explosives. Additionally, Mr. Lin’s daughter and another alleged associate have been charged with money laundering.

Many of Mr. Lin’s affiliates were Chinese, but he also worked closely with a number of Malawians. One man, Aaron Dyson, a fluent Mandarin speaker, is now serving 15 years in prison for possessing and dealing in ivory.

“You’re looking at an entire Chinese-led network that is being dismantled,” Ms. Douglas-Hamilton said. “It’s a huge win for wildlife.”

The Malawi police began investigating Mr. Lin’s network in early 2015. In December 2017, they caught his wife and son-in-law buying ivory from a Zambian national and arrested them. Mr. Lin, however, continued to evade detection, and the case against his family members went cold.

A major break came in May 2019, when the police pulled over Mr. Lin’s driver and found three live pangolins in the trunk of his car. As they questioned the driver, “Mr. Lin was calling incessantly, leaving voice notes asking, ‘Where are you?’” Mr. Kaonga said. “He wanted to eat the pangolin meat, and that’s what put him in trouble.”

This gave the police grounds to conduct simultaneous raids on several of Mr. Lin’s commercial and residential properties in Lilongwe. Sniffer dogs led them to ivory, pangolin scales, pieces of rhino horn and illegal firearms. They made a number of arrests, including the rearrest of Mr. Lin’s wife and son-in-law. But Mr. Lin was nowhere to be found.