Killing for Profit


Harare – The world has been horrified by images of scores of poisoned elephants in what authorities have described variably as the worst case of poaching the country has seen, and as a major ecological disaster. The death of 300 elephants in Hwange National Park due to cyanide poisoning by poachers signifies an escalation in illegal hunting, which has been rising steadily over the years.

While the Hwange case has grabbed the limelight because of the gruesome images beamed around the world, the entire Southern African region is under a poachers’ siege. Authorities in the conservation sector have described the Hwange cyanide attack as the most extensive illegal massacre of elephants in Southern Africa to date.

The statistics are quite grave. In 2011, depending on whose figures you trust, between 25 000 and 50 000 elephants were killed by poachers globally. Probably the only single massacre of elephants in one place comparable to what has happened is Hwange is that of Bouba N’djida National Park in Cameroon where poachers accounted for 650 beasts between December 2011 and March 2012.

Jason Bell, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), says such activities rank “among the most serious, dangerous and damaging of international crimes along with human trafficking, drug running and illegal arms sales”.

It is not just elephants that are in the crosshairs of poachers.

As has often been reported, rhinos remain the prey of choice for poachers operating mainly from South Africa and with links to Asian syndicates. The rhino horn can fetch as much as US$133 per gramme in Asia, which is higher than the black market price for gold. (Which means a poaching syndicate can get up to US$60 000 per kg.)

Rikkert Reijnen, author and conservation campaigner notes, that elephants, rhinos and other wild animal species were, until recently, relatively safe in Southern Africa. ''The killing spree, which is decimating Africa’s wildlife, started in Central and West Africa,'' he said recently. “From there, the poachers moved eastward and now the countries in the south are being targeted.” In his estimation, the spread of cross-border poaching and its links to armed groups have quickly reached ''alarming proportions in the region''.

The Cost

The killing sport is coming at a huge cost. The decimation of wildlife populations – in particular big, endangered game – implies huge environmental and economic costs to Southern Africa’s relatively small economies. Tourism will be the first to take a huge knock, as poachers target the renowned Big Five of the lion, the African elephant, the buffalo, the leopard and the rhinoceros.

And it is not just national economies that will be impacted on. Communities in wildlife-rich areas have increasingly implemented programmes that see them directly benefiting from tourism. This has been through a dividend from trophy hunting fees, provision of accommodation, tour guide services and sale of food and wares to visitors who want to see wildlife in the wild and not behind the bars of European, American and Asian zoos.

In the Tsholotsho area bordering Hwange in Zimbabwe, for example, communities have been able to construct and maintain amenities such as schools, roads and clinics through the proceeds of their conservation and tourism-based activities. Since 2010, authorities say, Tsholotsho earned US$650 000 from trophy fees alone.

In September, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) predicted that the impact of poaching in South Africa “could soon take its toll on one of the country’s most lucrative sectors” in reference to tourism. Wessa illustrated this by pointing to the case of Tanzania where poachers drop as many as 30 elephants every day and tourism has been on the decline over the past two years.

In Mozambique, tourism has become an important economic pillar, notwithstanding the surge in mining activities, and has experienced a 13 percent year-on-year growth since 2006. The expectation is that it will account for 14 percent of Mozambique’s GDP by 2014.

But now there are fears that there are no more black rhinos in the wild in Mozambique, with the last one meeting its end through a poacher’s bullet earlier this year.

Wessa says decimation of game, means “Ultimately, sustainable employment opportunities for a poverty stricken population will be lost”. Following the 2008 financial crisis triggered by the United States, tourism is understood to employ more people in Africa than mining does. These are jobs that will be lost – much like with the financial crisis – because of a man-made disaster induced by greed.

The Culprits

The rise in demand for rhino horn from Asia has been cited as the major factor contributing to the surge in poaching of an animal that is internationally recognised as an endangered species. In several cases, communities have been responsible for poaching as a means of averting hunger.

But on the whole, organised and sophisticated syndicates are behind the surge in illegal hunting.

Well-armed and highly mobile gangs – sometimes using helicopters – have set up base in South Africa and make forays into Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Mozambique has now been identified as the main exit point for illegal animal products headed for Asia. In this particular case, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Vietnamese syndicates are behind most of the smuggling of poached elephant ivory and rhino horn from Southern Africa to Asia.

In southeast Zimbabwe, reports have emerged of privately owned “impenetrable” areas that poachers use as bases. The journal Wildlife Extra last year exposed the existence of a network of veterinarians who supplied poachers with M99, a drug that is 1 000 times more powerful than morphine, to sedate large game.

The use and supply of M99 is officially extremely restricted, but somehow criminals find the drug easy to acquire in South Africa. Wildlife Extra fingered Limpopo-based rhino poaching kingpin Dawie Groenewald, his wife Sariette, and nine people – including veterinarians, licensed hunters and a helicopter pilot – in such activities. They were arrested in South Africa in 2011 and the +1 500 charges they are facing have not yet been concluded.

In another case cited by Wildlife Extra in March 2012, Christoffel Jacobus Lombard, Eugine Petrus van der Merwe and William Theuns Jooste were arrested and charged with possession of M99; illegal entry on land with a weapon; conspiracy to commit a restricted activity and fraud.

Scott Free

The conspiracy is deep and centres around mafia-like lords who are getting away with murder on a daily basis. Relatively few poachers are ever caught, and conviction rates are low. And even those convicted get away with light custodial sentences, or are ordered to pay fines that they can easily afford from their billion dollar “industry”. In short, the masterminds are more or less untouchable.

The masterminds are untouchable. Their lackeys, the actual poachers who enter sanctuaries and shoot animals, are the ones who get arrested here and there. Invariably, this means black shooters get arrested – and spend 10 odd years in jail – while the whites who own conservancies that mask their syndicates, and the veterinarians and pilots who collude with them, are left free to carry on with their poaching.

Only five percent of the 397 rhino-related arrests made in South Africa between 2010 and 2011 (as reported by the World Wildlife Fund) were “white guys”. “Since 2006, twenty-nine ‘white guys’ have been arrested in connection with rhino crimes, and of them: Only two were sentenced to jail time. Over 93 percent were granted bail, which has ranged in amounts from R3 000-R100 000. Seventeen percent were repeat offenders. More than 20 percent worked in the veterinary field.

“More than 20 percent were professional hunters. Around 17 percent were safari operators. At least about 72 percent own, were employed at, or work closely with game farms. “Cases against at least 34.5 percent of the suspects seem to still be pending, and only half of them are scheduled for an upcoming court date.

“Cases against at least 17 percent of the accused have seemingly vanished. Cases against nearly 14 percent were thrown out of the courts. “At least two have publicly lobbied for the legalisation of rhino horn trade. Six of the 29 individuals arrested since 2006 had faced prior charges for contravening conservation laws, many of them rhino-related,” Wildlife Extra said.

Political Solutions, Technological Fights

Two major solutions appear to be gaining traction. The University of South Africa’s Professor Moses Montesh belongs to the school of thought that proposes a “political solution”. He told a seminar in September that the political solution involving Southern Africa and Asia was needed to win the war against poaching.

He pointed out that in Mozambique, poaching is seen as only a misdemeanour, while other countries classify it as a serious crime. The result of this is lack of co-operation across borders. Poaching is a transnational activity and countries must thus have a harmonised approach to tackling it.

Where approaches are different, it becomes difficult to pursue criminals across borders or have them extradited. Ideally, harmonised legislation premised on a political solution will make it possible to prosecute a poacher, for example, in the country he/she has fled to and not just in the country where the crime was committed.

Another solution that has been proposed is improving the technologies used to combat poaching. Of course, this is an expensive option, but one that will cost less than losing revenue to poachers. South Africa has deployed a high tech, low-speed reconnaissance plane called The Seeker, donated by a defence contractor.

The Seeker is equipped with sophisticated heat sensors to detect animals and humans on the ground, and its quiet engine means it can approach virtually undetected. The non-profit organisation Wildland Security has  introduced a system of electronic sensors called ''TrailGuards'' that can be buried underground or hidden amongst trees.

These give game rangers the precise co-ordinates of poachers who activate them. Some people have suggested introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones.

The World Wildlife Fund launched drones in Nepal ‑ where poachers were killing rhinos, elephants, and tigers – to track poachers and assist ground units to corner them. (The use of drones here, naturally, would not be in the same vein as Washington’s “targeted assassinations”.)

Then there are the advocates of tougher sentences for poachers. And, of course, there remains the age-old debate of whether or not to legalise and control the trade in rhino horn. Opponents of this point out that the limited trade in elephant ivory has not reduced poaching of the biggest land mammal. Just look at recent events in Hwange National Park. As things stand, dehorning rhinos in areas that are difficult to secure remains the only way to save these animals. But then again, very few tourists come to see a dehorned rhino.

November 2013
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