New wildlife commission targets rhino horn syndicates

Criminals using Mozambique as a conduit to smuggle rhino horns to countries in Asia will come under the spotlight of the Wildlife Justice Commission, a new international body that will be launched in December.

Anti-wildlife-poaching organisations are collecting evidence to prepare legal cases against syndicates trafficking rhino horns from the Kruger National Park.

Up to 80% of the horns taken from the 1 932 rhinos poached in the national park since 2010 have been smuggled through Mozambique, according to the head of the park’s antipoaching unit, General Johan Jooste.

The Wildlife Justice Commission, based in The Hague and funded by the Dutch lottery, is preparing legal cases with the help of an international team of lawyers and other specialists.

Mozambique has emerged as a “profitable warehouse” for the export of illegal rhino horns to Asian markets, said the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) during a strategy workshop aimed at tackling poaching held in Maputo in September.

“An increasing number of rhino horns are smuggled out of Mozambican ports, as well as through the Maputo and Beira international airports, then pass through other points such as Nairobi [Kenya] and Addis Ababa [Ethiopia] before arriving at destinations in Asia,” said WWF researcher Madyo Couto.

Prison sentences
Earlier this year the Mozambican government introduced draft legislation that provides for prison sentences of between eight and 12 years, and fines of between $4 425 and $88 500, for poachers who kill protected species.

But the WWF said corruption remained a major factor in enabling poachers to gain access to protected areas and weapons, transportation of ivory and rhino horns and then smuggling them out of the country.

In the Niassa National Reserve, on Mozambique’s northern border with Tanzania, an average of five elephants are killed every day by organised ivory syndicates, according to the reserve’s administrator, Cornélio Miguel. 

“The killing of elephants in the north is reaching proportions never seen before – it is being industrialised,” said World Conservation Society advisor Carlos Pereira.

Despite the growing awareness of poaching and organised wildlife crime throughout Mozambique, finding hard evidence to prosecute offenders is a stumbling block.

Armando Wilson, deputy prosecutor in Cabo Delgado province, where the elephant slaughter is taking place, said in the past two months four poaching-related cases had been brought before the courts, and more were on the way. He was not able to give details of the cases, nor of those arrested or released, however.

Wildlife whistle-blower
WildLeaks, a wildlife crime whistle-blower platform, is collecting hard evidence of these crimes to place before the Wildlife Justice Commission.

WildLeaks says part of its plan is to strengthen the arm of the law inside the country. “The vision is that the rule of law is applied in target countries and effective justice for wildlife crime ensures that there is a significant reduction in the poaching and trafficking of threatened species,” said its founder, Andrea Crosta.

In the south, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation is assisting local conservation organisations to identify syndicates that profit from the illicit rhino horn trade across the Kruger Park’s border.

“This is the most critical piece of rhino conservation land in the world,” said the foundation’s Damien Mander, who works on the Mozambican side of the park’s border, “and this is where the poaching problem originates.”

During a meeting with communities living near the border zone last weekend, Mander noted a rising resentment against the lack of intervention by Mozambican authorities.

“A few kilometres from the Kruger border, I heard a passionate, heartfelt plea to the police to be more effective. This came from one of the village elders whose son was shot and killed while poaching rhinos in Kruger.”

Fiona Macleod is editor of the Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Environmental Journalism.

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Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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