Africa’s battle to save its wildlife and national parks
The Elephant and Rhino Poaching Saga (1970 – 2015) (Part III)
There is now no doubt at all that Africa’s political and social elite have been responsible for all the major elephant and rhino poaching events in Africa during the last 45 years. As previous articles in this series have exposed, some of the most horrific truths come out of Kenya and Tanzania (see Parts I & II); but what of the rest of Africa?
The tale of woe continues…
Dr. Don Heath was a onetime chief wildlife research officer in the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. During the last several years of his life he lived and worked in Sweden – for the Norma ammunition industry. In several emails between us in 2015, he gave me some insight into what the war against commercial poaching in Zimbabwe was like a few years ago. And he directed most of the war against the poachers, taking an active part in many operations.
Of his time in the Zimbabwean National Parks Department (during the 1980s & 1990s), Heath said:
“We killed over 900 poachers, lost 18 of our own men and almost all of the (black) rhino.
“The Aussie government,” he said, “helped by paying game scouts a $500 bounty for each poacher they killed or had convicted. In truth, (however) we were killing poor peasants – mostly refugees from the Congo (Zaire) who had been living in camps in northern Zambia; or refugees from the civil war in Mozambique. They had all been recruited by corrupt Zambian and Zimbabwean politicians and/or other elements of the government poaching syndicates.
“To have pressed the ‘pause’ button on the rhino slaughter in Zimbabwe,” Heath goes on to say, “We (actually) needed to shoot only 11 people.” They included:-
- Four Indian businessmen in Lusaka (Zambia) – who were buying the rhino horn;
- The Zimbabwean Vice-President – Simon Muzenda – who was a linchpin in the local poaching rackets;
- Muzenda’s brother-in-law, T.Mudariki, who was also a Member of Zimbabwe’s Parliament;
- Ellias Makombe, the Director of Zimbabwe’s National Parks Department – who worked closely with both Muzenda and Mudariki. He also worked with members of the South African Military Intelligence (SAMI) who coordinated the poaching in Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park;
- Graham Knott, head of the Zimbabwe National Parks Investigation Unit – who turned out, also, to be an active commissioned captain in SAMI – was made responsible by Makombe for ensuring there were no effective anti-poaching units operating in the south east of the country;
- An American CIA agent in the south east of Zimbabwe – William (Bill) Holms – who was working with SAMI. Heath believes Holms might well have been a ‘double agent’ of some sort, and he claims Holms was responsible for the deaths of three of ‘our’ men (i.e. Zimbabwean anti-poaching personnel);
- Two (unnamed) officers in SAMI who were in charge of the collection of rhino horn and ivory from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola.”
Heath further claims that because Charlie Haley and Glen Tatham – both members of the Department of National Parks at the time – shot and killed a poacher who turned out to be Mudariki’s son, they landed up in gaol.
Glen Tatham was, at that time, Chief Game Warden in the Zimbabwe National Parks Department.
This is real life Africa in operation! Corruption at the highest political level! Corruption at the highest administrative level – even within the wildlife authority that should have been safeguarding the country’s wildlife resources! And nefarious collaborations with senior military intelligence officers from other countries who were deeply involved in the poaching rackets too. These are the kinds of real-life difficulties with which the genuine anti-poaching units have to contend in Africa. And – knowing Africa as I do – I suspect that this type of official collusion is rife throughout the continent.
John Coleman, a Rhodesian game ranger turned professional hunting guide – who operated throughout south-central Africa for most of his adult life – had this to say in an open letter to American Dr. Andre Degeorges:
“I have been a game ranger in Rhodesia and then a professional hunter for most of my life, therefore, have been directly and indirectly involved in anti-poaching in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia.
“I agree with you that, under present conditions and over-population of humans, the only way to curb poaching to any extent, locally, is to police very effectively and diligently. The problem is that politicians are involved and members of National Parks and Game Departments are in peril of dismissal or worse, if they persist in anti poaching operations, particularly if it affects those politicians.
“Politicians must be held accountable and actively pursued and punished. The only people who can do this are the world leaders.
“Now… to deal with dwindling elephant populations due to poaching!
“In many of the areas that were and are heavily poached, the elephants were, to a great degree, heavily over-populated (anyway). A certain amount of culling should have been done, despite the rabid opposition from anti-hunters and ‘Greens’. These people managed to persuade leading politicians to get all legal hunting banned, thus clearing the way for poachers to take over. The politicians were benefited in two ways as a result: they got the money from the ‘persuasion’; and they got involved themselves in the lucrative ivory and rhino horn business. How do you counter that in countries where presidents and other politicians are not held accountable for their crimes? In Africa, to a great extent, leaders are democratic dictators and can and will do as they wish. An example of this is in Zambia. In the 1980s over 75,000 elephant and all the remaining black rhino were annihilated by (poacher) gangs and the army, working directly for the senior politicians. Most remaining elephants disappeared, moving out of the country. A few years after the new government stopped the poaching by using drastic anti-poaching methods, many of the elephant returned and there is now a fairly viable population again.
“The only short term, practical way of stopping poaching and the trade in ivory and rhino horn is to drastically police and to target all middlemen and traders in these products. No market – no sale. For this to work, all world governments have to be involved actively and go along with this and actively pursue the culprits. Can this be done in time? You tell me!!”
Another quote from John Coleman:
“Of course there is rampant poaching of elephant in Africa. The main culprits are high-ranking politicians and army generals, right up to presidents themselves.
“For example, when I was operating safaris in Zambia during the 1980s “that wonderful leader” Kenneth Kaunda was reputed to be directly responsible for organising the slaughter of at least 75,000 elephant.
The only places we saw a few miserable, almost tuskless elephant were near our hunting camps. The army and game rangers did most of the slaughtering and one could hear AK47s firing in the game reserves almost daily. There were many wounded animals because they just left them if they couldn’t kill them and I shot a few of the poor, suffering beasts. I dared not report it because I would have been accused of plotting against the state and poaching, apart from being a spy.
“Also, all the remaining black rhino were annihilated by these same people and by the employees of ‘Save the Rhino’ (an NGO) who had been issued Land Cruisers and 458s (heavy caliber hunting rifles). Guess what they used them for???!!!
“Better not publicise this. I may be sued by Kaunda and his buddies in the South African Government.”
NB: I have John’s permission to quote him! This information, anyway, was circulated world-wide in a round-robin email distributed by Andre Degeorges in 2015.
Northern Mozambique has suffered the same kind of serious elephant poaching as has Tanzania – its immediate northern neighbour. Indeed many suggestions have been made to the effect that the elephant poaching in both these countries is linked to the same commercial poaching syndicate. And the animal rightists’ constant wolf-cry has remained the same: “The people responsible”, they say, “are the Far Eastern poaching mafia”. And their solution to the problem has not changed either: “Ban the wildlife trade in all its forms.” What good that will do we have already discussed! The wildlife trade is not the problem. The problem lies in the fact that there is very serious corruption at the highest of political levels right across on the continent – and until that can be interrupted, the commercial poaching of Africa’s valuable wild animals will continue.
And is there political corruption in Mozambique? Certainly there is! And the culprit’s name was recently mentioned on South African television. Regrettably, I failed to record his particulars. It should not, however, be too difficult for the South African Intelligence community to determine who he is.
And why should South Africa be interested in this man?
Over the last several years the poaching of South Africa’s white rhinos in Kruger National Park has reached legend proportions. The whole world knows about it. And South Africa has mounted what amounts to a military operation to try to stop it. But the poaching continues unabated. Unfortunately what South Africa is doing tackles only the ‘symptoms’ of the poaching problem. The ‘cause’ remains unaddressed. And every intelligent person knows that to solve a problem you have to remove its ‘cause’.
Mozambican citizens living just across the international border, repeatedly invade Kruger National Park to shoot rhinos for their horns. And Mozambican authorities are making no attempt to stop the poaching. That means only one thing! Some senior political person (or persons) in Mozambique are affording the rhino poachers immunity from arrest. And, rumour has it this is the same person who orchestrated the elephant poaching in the extreme north of the country.
Every diplomatic approach that the South African Minister of Environmental Affairs has made – seeking cooperation from her counterpart in the Mozambican government – has fallen on barren ground. Nevertheless, seeking this political solution is probably the best short-term way to curtail the rhino poaching. The Minister, Mrs Edna Molewa, therefore, should persevere!
A major ‘cause’ of Kruger National Park’s rhino poaching problem is the existence of the politician who is shielding the poachers. He is the linchpin of the syndicates involved. So, to stop the rhino poaching, his influence needs to be cancelled. If you want to kill a snake you have to cut its head off! Nothing else – at this stage of the game – will work.
The same syndrome is operative in Mozambique, therefore, as has occurred in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The root cause of the poaching, in and out of Mozambique, is the involvement of people in authority – people who have the position-power to offer the poachers immunity from arrest. And they are not doing this for nothing!
I have recently been exposed to some alarming revelations concerning alleged government corruption, related to the poaching of rhinos on private game ranches in South Africa. This is a story that also must be told.
Many private rhino owners have been darting their animals and sawing off their horns to make them unattractive to poachers. By doing this they save their rhinos’ lives. Many game ranch owners are also gearing up to farm rhinos for the purpose of harvesting their horns on a regular basis.
Sawn-off rhino horns re-grow in a remarkably short time! At this moment, there is no legal way to sell rhino horn into the international market place, so the excised horns (worth more than their equivalent weight in gold) are being stored in secure bank vaults for the day when the farmers will (hopefully) be able to sell them legally.
The process of dehorning a rhino is very simple. The rhino is darted and anaesthetised; and whilst it is comatose the horn is sawn off. There is no bone, skin, nerves or blood vessels associated with a rhino’s horn so its removal does not cause pain or discomfort. Nevertheless, the South African government’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has imposed on this practice a set of strict legal requirements.
The rhino owner is required to apply for a permit to dehorn his rhinos, and he has to submit the following details on the application form:
- His name and identity number;
- The district and province in which he lives;
- The name of his farm;
- The name of the nearest town;
- The size of the property;
- The number of rhinos on the property;
- The number of rhinos he wishes to dehorn;
- The date on which the farmer plans to cut off his rhino’s horns;
- And the name of the government approved depository where the horns will be stored safely.
The permits can take anything from one to four weeks to be granted and during that period many applicants have had their properties attacked by poachers; their rhinos have been killed; and the horns hacked off. One such farmer lost seven white rhinos in one night! Others have lost various other numbers. In many such cases, these farmers have not ever previously suffered a single poaching incident.
In one case, three rhino farmers with adjoining properties had had no previous visitations by poachers. Two of the farmers applied for permits to dehorn their rhinos. The third did not. Within one week of the DEA’s receipt of the two applications, both petitioners were hit by poachers; and they both lost several animals. The property of the third farmer – the one who did not apply – was not visited by the poachers.
Game ranch owners lament the fact that: “Once the rhinos have been dehorned the risk transfers to the owners and managers of the reserves.” It is much easier (for the poaching syndicate) to steal a rhino horn off a human being than off a rhino, and reserve personnel have often been held up at gunpoint by members of the poaching gangs with demands for their safe keys.
“In our case, (one report states) to guarantee our safety, we employ full time armed guards until we are able to transfer the horn to a bank vault in Johannesburg. We are also accompanied by an armed escort on the journey because the Nature Conservation (officials) know all the relevant details: the number and weights of the horns; the dates we would be transporting them; and the locations of their final destination. The chance of being hi-jacked en route, therefore, is very good.”
My informants apologized for the fact that – under the circumstances – they were unwilling to provide me with proof to confirm their statements. Nor were they prepared to be identified. They told me that: “We would like to remain anonymous because we fear retaliation from the police, nature conservation etc. We don’t know who to trust and the safety of our surviving rhinos has to be our priority.”
I could recite many other such incidences but the above should be sufficient to convince you that at least some officials of the South African government DEA are implicated – one way or another – in the poaching of rhinos on private game ranches! I have promised not to mention names or the circumstances of other farm attacks. Suffice it to say that the rhino poaching incidences – with the same suspected DEA-involved modus operandi – are regular occurrences throughout the main rhino ranching areas of the country. So numerous are these reports, in fact, that few rhino farmers now have any doubts that relatively senior officers of the DEA are often the culprits.
Apparently, many of these cases have been reported to the police – and to the Green Scorpions (South Africa’s special environmental policemen) – but nothing of any consequence has eventuated. It is alleged that one senior official of the DEA was proven to have been part of a DEA-related rhino-poaching syndicate; but he has not been arrested; and he continues with his government-paid job as though nothing at all has happened.
When farmers voiced their various suspicions directly to the DEA, the officials retorted that they believe it was the farmers themselves who had poached their own rhinos.
I understand that the South African government has been informed of all these facts and circumstances; but DEA officials still insist that it is ‘the mafia’ that is behind it all!
It makes one wonder, therefore, just how much of a red herring is the widely publicised Vietnamese and Chinese poaching mafia? They are here in Africa – certainly – but their impact would appear to be minuscule compared to the poaching committed by Africa’s own crime syndicates; by its civil servants; and by its politicians. And the greatest poachers of them all, seemingly, are the continent’s political elite!
The most important role played by the foreign mafia in the poaching rackets, therefore – if the full truth be known – may well be simply that of ‘contraband buyers’.
All this puts another face on the commercial poaching rackets in Africa!