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Published On: Sat, Oct 13th, 2018

Mozambique elephant poaching 2018

The usual reception for any new arrival to the town of Massingir in the southern province of Gaza in Mozambique is a long, inquisitive and hostile look reserved only for unwelcome intruders.

It was the same feeling I had while waiting in a truck, outside a dinghy hotel, for the arrival of two contacts who had agreed to talk about the role of corrupt security and judicial officers in the elephant poaching crisis of the Massingir and Limpopo National Parks.

Emerging from the shadows of a vegetable van, the contacts squeezed into the tiny cab as we started a fast drive down the dusty street, to exit the town via the south-bound highway. About 10 kilometres out of town, the ‘main’ contact signalled for a stop.

He is a retired Detective Superintendent of the Criminal Investigations Department (CIS), and his colleague is a serving member of a specialized crime intelligence unit of the Gaza Provincial Police Command.   

Ivory, a hunting rifle, dried elephant meat and personal items recovered from suspected Zambian elephant poachers in Zimbabwe

Police informers for poaching kingpins

“Sorry for hustling you, but we had to leave the ‘city’ because it is full of poachers. The kingpins, employees and informers including police officers. One word of outsiders asking questions about things that don’t concern them can send you straight into the gutter, with a bullet between the eyes,” says the veteran investigator who returned to Massingir after serving 20 years at the National Police Command in Maputo.

Most of the guns used for poaching in Massingir are allegedly government-owned firearms that are either stolen, bought or loaned-out for a fee from members of the security services.

“Police and army officers in Massingir have no motivation to fight poaching because they see their commanders and political leaders making money from the vice. They would rather to rent out or steal and sell guns to poachers. Others take bribes to free the poachers. Due to complicity, police officers protect and help poachers evade arrest and prosecution.

“To beat justice, commanders can re-assign or transfer officers to render the investigation inconclusive. Officers with links to syndicates also facilitate the bribery of judicial officers who destroy exhibits, disappear dockets to throw cases off the roll,” he said.

The deceptive detectives of Masingir

A case in point is the arrest in December 2017 of Massingir Police District Commander Jose Joao Campira and Beguine Armando, a top detective of the Criminal Investigations Service (CIS) for stealing rifles from the police armoury to supply poaching syndicates.

The officers were identified by detained poachers as the source of the arms that were used to kill elephants in Massingir National Park a month earlier. Charged with theft of military-grade weapons, they appeared in court once in January 2018. The case remains in limbo amid insider fears that it has disappeared into thin air, just like many others before it.

elephant drinking photo/Brandon Jones

“There was only one appearance for initial remand, and nothing since then. Now they are free and Campira is no longer with the force but working almost openly with the same poachers he was accused of helping. Armando just disappeared from Massingir but there are reports that he was secretly transferred to a remote outpost.

“Apparently, their prosecution lost steam due to fears it would open a can of worms that could suck in other provincial police and local government officers including at least one powerful Frelimo (ruling party) official who comes from Massingir but lives in Maputo,” said the female officer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.  

The corruption webs spun by the poachers of Massingir run so deep that the gifts and cash proceeds of rhino and elephant poaching routinely fund the election campaigns of local Frelimo party candidates.

When they gain power, such leaders are appointed as district, provincial, parliamentary and national government leaders. As payback for bankrolling the campaigns, those in positions of power grant unofficial impunity and immunity from arrest to their financial sponsors.

In the border regions with South Africa, poaching is allegedly aided in various ways by rogue Mozambican policemen.  According to an ‘Information Document on Poaching’ obtained from the Gaza Border Guard’s second regiment, most ‘poaching (militias) are headed by or include serving and retired police and military veterans.’

They collude in gun procurement and the obstruction of investigations to prevent the arrests. Limpopo National Park rangers who spoke on condition of anonymity said it is common practice for Mozambican police, parks rangers and military officers to rent out their official firearms to poaching syndicates for hefty fees, or shares in the proceeds. 

“The influencing factors including the demands of daily survival and how to sustain families. Many end up joining the poachers because government pay is too low when compared to the one-off gains to be made from hiring out guns or taking bribes to destroy evidence, which have changed many lives overnight.

“In the ranks, there is a widely entrenched acceptance of the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ doctrine. Many who have arrested poachers before have seen them freed within hours on the orders of a bribe-taking superior, top government or party (FRELIMO) officers. So why not take a bribe if the commander will take it, free the prisoner and the ivory?” he asked.

The ground reports are consistent with recent developments in the rank and file of game rangers in Limpopo National Park. In December 2017, the park was investigating 30 game rangers for alleged complicity in syndicated rhino and elephant poaching.  

Some have reportedly been fired while investigations and internal disciplinary proceedings are at various stages for the others.  

‘Wave upon wave’ of Mozambican poachers enter South Africa daily

According to the International Coalition of Rhino Protection Counter Poaching Unit (ICORP), ‘wave upon wave’ of Mozambican poachers cross daily into the broader Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) area of South Africa.

The APNR includes the Kruger, Timbavati, Klaserie National Parks and the Umbabat Nature Reserve. ICORP patrols the Mozambique-South Africa border to stop poacher incursions into the APNR.

ICORP founder and Special Ground Operations Director Marc Mc Donald said the force remains the only buffer between ‘the world’s highest concentration of free-ranging rhinos and elephants’ and ‘the world’s highest concentration of poaching syndicates’ in Mozambique.

“Wave upon wave of armed and dangerous poaching gangs (from Mozambique) are killing South African rhinos to smuggle the horns to Vietnam. ICORP stands in the gap, acting as a stopper, becoming a deterrent and disruptive force to all poaching events in the area.

“This includes ridding the parks of meat poachers (who hunt) with dogs and machetes. Snaring also happens on a massive scale so that the meat can be dried and used for rations by rhino poachers,” McDonald said in the group analysis of poaching trends in the wider APNR.

The poaching gangs of Niassa National Park

Of late, the Niassa National Park has attracted global attention as the epicentre of Mozambique’s ivory poaching crisis. According to a recent report, at least 17 000 elephants have been slaughtered by poachers in the park in the past few years.

In Niassa, reports of collusion between security, government and powerful FRELIMO party officials are as common as they are in Limpopo and other parks further south. Separated from Tanzania by the porous border marked by the Rovuma River, Niassa has long attracted Tanzanian poachers with links to illegal ivory markets of China, Hong Kong and Vietnam.

“Tanzanian poachers who cross the Rovuma River into Niassa are controlled from Tanzania, but keep trusted members in Mozambique to coordinate ivory smuggling. They pay couriers deliver ‘safe passage’ bribes to game rangers, the police, port officials and other law enforcement agencies,” said a judicial source

In her opinion, the only way to reduce cross-border poaching by Tanzanians in theNiassa National Park would be to have joint security patrols on both sides of the Rovuma River.

“That (joint patrols) would be best, but unfortunately it won’t be done. Not anytime soon, because Tanzania never cooperates. Worse still, Mozambican is paralysed by pervasive and deep-seated corruption in the security, judiciary and political sectors. There is no political will to end poaching and other resource crimes like illegal logging in the Niassa,” she said.

In the Niassa city and its hinterland, police officers, rangers, prosecutors and magistrates who tried to investigate high-level poaching syndicates have demoted or transferred to remote stations.

While the focus has remained on the impact of Tanzanian-led poaching syndicates in Niassa, Mozambique’s own game rangers and police are suspected of collusion in recent theft cases of ivory from government warehouses.

According to a report released in May 2018 by the National Administration for Conservation Areas (ANAC), part of the 3-tonne ivory stash seized from a contained in Maputo Port on April 12, 2018 was stolen from the Niassa provincial stores of the Ministry of Lands, Environment and Rural Development and the Criminal Investigation Services wing of the police.

According to the report, 813 kg of ivory was stolen from official stores in Niassa between April 2016 and April 2017. The rest of was traced by their area source-codes to government warehouses in Gaza Province, with most coming from the Limpopo National Park.  

Altogether, ANAC determined that the container had 886 elephant tusks that weighed 3.3 tonnes. The ivory was sourced from at least 400 elephants. Investigations ended inconclusively with the suspects, who included game rangers and police officers, released without charge.

Following the theft of 12 rhino horns from a police strong-room in the city of Matola in May 2015, global wildlife trafficking monitor TRAFFIC said such crime showed that Mozambique’s fight against wildlife crimes faces several setbacks from within.

The rhino horns were part of ivory stocks seized by the police from poachers in the Matola provincial policing area. Although a number of police officers were arrested, they were quickly released as the investigations ended inconclusively.

“The seizure was originally heralded as a significant breakthrough in international efforts to clampdown on the criminal syndicates behind rhino poaching and smuggling of horns between Africa and Asia.

“However, news of the police strong-room theft represents a serious setback in efforts to follow-up the seizure with significant investigations that could help break a major (ivory) trafficking network,” TRAFFIC said.

The organisation called on the government of President Felipe Nyusi Mozambique to follow through its commitment to clean up corruption in the police force and seek specialist help from the International Police Organization (Interpol) to end corruption in law enforcement.

The report said Mozambique remains a major trafficking conduit for ivory from Africa to Asia amid an increase in the number of law-enforcement lapses that include the theft of wildlife products, with the apparent complicity of government agencies.

In 2012, 266 elephant tusks were stolen from the Ministry of Agriculture headquarters in Maputo in what is seen as the first major ivory theft involving a government agency. Although it was widely believed to be an inside job, no arrests have been made to date.

The role of Mozambican security forces as principal drivers of the poaching crisis in the country is further revealed in a report compiled by the Small Arms Survey in 2015.

Entitled ‘In The Line of Fire: Elephant and Rhino Poaching In Africa’, the report identified the Mozambican security forces as main actors in poaching and the illegal ivory trade.

“In several cases, firearms seized by Mozambican police and game rangers have been traced to multiple poaching incidents, indication that security forces and rangers were neither negligent in storing seized weapons or were resupplying criminals, or both. In-fact, poachers arrested or killed in Mozambique have included active and former members of the army, border guards and police.

“Active and former state security providers who are involved in poaching may have insider access to state-owned firearms. Moreover, they are professionally trained in the use of weapons. Depending on their experience, poachers with military backgrounds also have knowledge of bush combat tactics and possess skills that can be adapted to wildlife tracking,” the report said.

In May, Mozambican Lands, Environment and Rural Development Minister Celso Correira said some government and security agencies in Niassa were involved in ivory poaching and theft.

The minister said although some officials were arrested in connection with the 2015 theft of ivory from a warehouse in Niassa, they were released due to bungling by the judiciary.

“People were caught, but the justice system doesn’t work. Up to now, nobody has been found guilty,” Correira said.

About the Author

- I am a Zimbabwean journalist with 18 years experience working in print broadcast and online media. From Gaborone in Botswana, I cover the African continent for South African-media organisations Defence Web and Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism. I am also a correspondent for African Aerospace (UK), the Botswana Gazette and The Zimbabwe Standard.

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  1. […] in Bostwana, translocations of elephants to countries with dwindling elephant herds (such as Mozambique, where elephants await a dubious fate) could be accommodated in Botswana’s “diverse […]

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