Maputo — Mozambique needs to unite the efforts of all the parties interested in fighting against poaching, urged Tourism Minister Carvalho Muaria on Wednesday.
Speaking at a Maputo workshop held by the WorldWide Fund for Nature (WWF) on the strategy to fight against poaching and the illegal trade in wildlife products, Muaria said that international organised crime syndicates are targeting rhinoceros and elephant populations in southern Africa.
The disappearance of such flagship species, he warned “will have a negative impact on tourism and on socio-economic development”.
Muaria admitted that Mozambique has become a corridor for smuggling to Asian destinations the horns of rhinos killed in South Africa.
He stressed the importance of a Memorandum of Understanding signed between Mozambique and South Africa in April, intended to strengthen the fight against rhino poaching, and a new law on conservation areas which dramatically increases the penalties for poaching protected species.
The law proposes prison sentences of between eight and 12 years for people who kill, without a licence, any protected species, or who use banned fishing gear, such as explosives or toxic substances. The same penalty will apply to people who set forests or woodlands on fire (poachers often use fire to drive animals into the open).
Anybody using illegal firearms or snares, even if they do not catch protected species, can be sentenced to two years imprisonment.
In addition, those found guilty of the illegal exploitation, storage, transport or sale of protected species will be fined between 50 and 1,000 times the minimum monthly national wage in force in the public administration (at current exchange rates, that would be a fine of between 4,425 and 88,500 US dollars).
Mozambican conservationist Madyo Couto noted that both the black rhino and the white rhino, which had been reasonably abundant in the 1960s, are now extinct in Mozambique. However, Mozambicans are still killing rhinos - he said that many of the poachers who kill rhinos in South Africa's Kruger National Park are recruited in Mozambique.
Some Mozambican policemen are also involved, by hiring guns out to poachers, Couto said. He noted that the same police gun was seized from poachers in South Africa and returned to the Mozambican police three times.
Police involvement in poaching was so rampant that the entire police unit in Massingir, on the border with the Kruger Park, was transferred at the start of this year.
Poaching had also “contaminated” staff in the Limpopo National Park. Couto said that several wardens and senior park officials were recently sacked for their involvement in these illicit activities.
Mozambique still has around 22,000 elephants, but these too are under threat, as poachers hack out their tusks to supply the thriving Asian ivory market, particularly in China. Couto said there had been an alarming rise in elephant poaching in the Niassa Reserve in the far north of the country.
Between 2009 and 2011 the number of elephant carcasses spotted from the air more than tripled, from 83 to 271.
Ivory and rhino horn are smuggled to the Asian market through Mozambican ports and airports. There have some successes in that shipments are occasionally seized. Couto said that 20 rhino horns were seized at Maputo International Airport in 2013, and a further six in the first quarter of 2014.
In January 2011, 126 elephant tusks were seized in the northern port of Pemba, where they had been hidden in a container full of logs.
Couto feared that most smuggled ivory goes undetected since less than five per cent of containers are properly inspected.
Jo Shaw, from the WWF's South African rhino conservation programme, pointed out that threatened species can come back from the brink of extinction. In the early 20th century only 50 white rhinos were known to be in existence - but now there are 20,000, around 19,000 of which are in South Africa.
Rhino populations in South Africa are still growing - but at current levels of poaching, Shaw feared that within the next couple of years the rhino death rate could exceed the birth rate.
She argued that the markets for rhino horn (mostly in Vietnam nowadays) must be targeted with messages that dissuade people from buying powdered horn. Wealthy Vietnamese buy the powder, partly because of its fictitious medicinal qualities, and partly because it is a status symbol.
Shaw was hopeful that demand for rhino horn could be reduced by properly targeted messages informing the consumers that the horn consists of keratin, precisely the same protein that is found in human fingernails.