By J. Peter Pham
From the Janjaweed militia of Sudan to the Central African Republic’s Séléka alliance, rebels across Africa are relying on money generated by poaching. What’s fueling this unfortunate phenomenon? According to J. Peter Pham, it’s the demands of increasingly prosperous Asian clients.
Last week, former rebels loyal to the opposition Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) announced that they were abandoning the twenty-one year old peace accord with the government of the southern African country after army troops overran a remote jungle base. The military action followed a spate of attacks on arms depots as well as civilian buses earlier this year. A return to the 1975-1995 civil war could threaten the economic boom which Mozambique has been experiencing in recent years, fueled by coal mining operations as well as the world’s largest natural gas discovery in the past decade. While grievances with the government may have motivated this latest rebellion, it is money from illegal wildlife products that is financing the violence.
But if RENAMO is able to once again mount an insurgency, it won’t be because the movement has much by way of popular support (its support has dwindled with each election since it entered politics and RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama barely received one-sixth of the votes cast in the 2009 presidential election) or because it is once again backed by white-minority regimes in neighboring Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, or South Africa (both countries have transitioned to majority rule). Rather it will be because of the lifeline which it has managed to grasp by poaching, both in Mozambique and in South Africa, whose Kruger National Park sits right on the border. South African officials report that poachers—90 percent of whom they believe to be operating across the border—had killed 536 rhinoceroses during the first half of 2013, making it likely that this year’s toll will exceed the 668 slaughtered last year.
Once sawed off, the ungulates’ horns are trafficked to East Asia—Vietnam and China are, respectively, the largest and second-largest markets—where they fetch upwards of $80,000 per kilogram. Since the average rhino horn weighs about nine kilograms and the loss rate is about 2.5 animals per day in just South Africa, what one looking at is a trade worth $657 million annually—and that is counting just the rhinos poached in one country. While not every kill can be laid at the door of RENAMO, the big jump in poaching the last few years parallels the return to the bush of the hardcore remnant of the group following its most recent electoral trouncing and interviews with both law enforcement officials and conservationists indicate that it also plays a lucrative role as a middle man in cases where the slaughter is carried out by poor local people. (Trading in illegal animal products is nothing new the Mozambican rebels who, during the late 1970s and 1980s, often with the collusion of South Africa’s apartheid-era military and intelligence services, established a rather efficient ivory harvesting operation which generated hundreds of millions of dollars to not only destabilize Southern Africa’s “frontline” states, but also line the pockets of corrupt regime officials in Pretoria.) More....