By Ellanie Smit
Southern Africa’s poached tusks and rhino horn are being smuggled to markets as far afield as Vietnam, China and Thailand, as criminal syndicates with links to money laundering, drugs, racketeering and prostitution operate with impunity.
This was confirmed by the Global Communications Co-ordinator of TRAFFIC, Dr Richard Thomas in a wide-ranging interview with Namibian Sun about the recent surge in poaching activities in Namibia and the global fight against poachers.
TRAFFIC is a wildlife trade monitoring network that looks at the trade in wild animals and plants globally.
Thomas said Namibia and the rest of Southern Africa are being targeted by poachers, because the region has the majority of rhino and elephant in the world.
“It's where the animals live. Southern Africa is home to more rhinos than any other country in the world, with around 95% of all white rhino and 40% of all black rhino.”
According to Thomas, Namibia has nearly the same number of black rhino as South Africa, although it has fewer white rhino.
He said Namibia had only recently been targeted on a more regular basis by poachers, as in the past the country had provided good protection for its wildlife, as many of the animals are on community-managed land where it is harder for poachers to penetrate.
According to him if one looks at South Africa’s figures, a high proportion of poaching takes place in the Kruger National Park, where there is a long, open border with Mozambique.
Thomas said other reasons why poaching has only recently increased in Namibia may be because there was less collusion in the past with criminal syndicates seeking to distribute horns and tusks to Asia.
He said even the biology of the rhino may play a role, as white rhino, as grazers, tend to be found more in the open and also in small groups - making them easier targets.
Black rhino, as browsers, tend to be harder to find and are also usually solitary.
Thomas described the poaching in the region as a highly organised activity.
“In many cases - especially in the targeting of rhinos - we have seen the use of sophisticated veterinary drugs to knock animals out. Horns are quickly hacked off and whisked away,” Thomas said.
Helicopters are even used by poachers, he said.
Thomas said poaching syndicates in the region are constantly changing their smuggling routes to try and avoid detection.
“Nevertheless, the common theme is horn being moved from Africa to Asia, so it is possible to profile and target the most likely used routes.”
He said rhino horns are mostly heading for Vietnam.
Elephant tusks are mainly heading to Asia, with China and Thailand the largest illegal markets.
He said generally speaking, poaching syndicates are Asian gangs.
“In South Africa there have been convictions of Asian nationals, some of whom are said to be senior figures within trafficking circles.”
Thomas further said there are direct links between the Chinese Triads, who smuggle abalone in South Africa, to the Hong Kong drug trade.
“Essentially they swap drugs for abalone.”
He said organised transnational crime that included poaching has also been linked with other forms of organised crime, including money laundering, drugs, racketeering and prostitution.
“These are dangerous, hardened criminals we're talking about, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on illegal wildlife products.”
According to him law-enforcement agencies are actively pursuing the money trails associated with poaching syndicates.
“If large sums of money are being made, who is pocketing the cash and what are they doing with it? Certainly the poachers on the ground will be making very little out of it, while putting their lives at risk carrying out their crimes,” Thomas said.
He added that following the money is one way to find out who is really benefiting, and an obvious way to get to the ringleaders, who “urgently needed to be brought to book”.
He said those combating poaching and trafficking need fresh intelligence information, as well as advanced technology and training.
“Well-equipped, sufficiently resourced rangers are needed on the ground to protect the animals and prevent poaching in the first instance, while every point of the trafficking chain also needs to be looked at to ensure it is as difficult as possible for the horn to be moved to its final destination.”
Thomas added that “excellent detection methods” are needed to catch those trafficking, and those masterminding these activities.
He stressed that these efforts needed to be supported by adequate penalties for those convicted of poaching or trafficking, and that support of the judiciary is needed in this regard.
Thomas explained that different approaches are being used to combat poaching in the region.
“There are techniques such as the use of sniffer dogs trained to find ivory and rhino horn that are increasingly coming into play,” he said.
Thomas added: “At the other end of the trade chain, there are now efforts underway by governments and organisations, including TRAFFIC that seek to change the buying behaviour of those who currently buy or seek to buy horn and ivory - in essence we want to make it ‘uncool’ for people to do so and take away the market. It's a long-term solution, but it's one that will work if it can be implemented.”
He said there was an historic precedence for this, which had been used in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Yemen – all former major consumers of illegal wildlife products.
“Attitudes can be changed, but you have to be realistic and appreciate it won't happen overnight,” Thomas said.
According to recent statistics, 25 000 African elephants were killed in 2011, while 22 000 were killed in 2012 and just over 20 000 in 2013.
This is out of a population estimated between 420 000 and 650 000.
Rhino poaching has increased by 7 700% between 2007 and 2013 on the continent.
The number of black rhino is estimated to be 5 000 and the number of white rhino 20 000.
South Africa reported last month that it had lost 558 rhino to poachers so far this year.
Namibia has recently experienced an increase in poaching activities and according to its latest figures, a total of 12 rhino had been poached this year so far, while and 10 elephant had been killed for their ivory.
Three Chinese nationals were arrested earlier this year when they were found with 14 rhino horn at the Hosea Kutako International Airport.
It is believed that more arrests will follow in the case, as police continue their investigations into the alleged syndicate.
There are also still serious concerns about Mozambique’s involvement in the rhino poaching crisis.
The country continues to be a key in relation to rhino poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn.
Recent seizures of rhino horn indicate that crime syndicates continue to target Mozambique as a country from which they can obtain illegal wildlife products that are then smuggled to clandestine markets.
A recent report titled ‘Ivory’s Curse: The Militarisation and Professionalisation of Poaching in Africa’ indicated that organised crime, government corruption and militias are all linked to elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade.
It said poachers in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Sudan and Kenya move across borders with near impunity.
The report said that in Sudan, “government-allied militias complicit in the Darfur genocide fund their operations by poaching elephants”.
It added that poaching also occurs hundreds of kilometres outside of Sudan’s borders.
In terms of Somalia, the report blamed the terrorist group al-Shabab and criminal networks, who were blamed for poaching in neighbouring Kenya.
The weapons they use, it said, come from local security forces.
The report said Mozambique poachers are “willing to battle the South African army and park rangers to poach rhino horn”.
In Gabon and the Republic of Congo, it said that forest exploitation has allowed East Asian organised crime syndicates to come into the region and poach Central African elephants.
Also Zimbabwe continues to be a poaching hotspot and this was due to the ongoing political situation.