Mozambique | Hunting Season

It's two-and-a-half thousand dead rhinos vs. three-hundred-and-sixty-three dead poachers in the Kruger Park.

By Lazaro Mabunda
Many of the Mozambicans were poachers. But perhaps not all. “This is the route we use to walk to South Africa”: a story of migration, smuggling, cannon fodder and rural villages donned with luxury mansions.

First time visitors to the village of Magude in Maputo province, and its sister towns Massingir and Chokwe in Mozambique’s Gaza region, will be surprised at the many mansions and expensive cars that don the otherwise poor landscapes. There is even a hotel under construction in rural Chokwe now. The second surprise will undoubtedly be directed at the lack of daylight business activity and the sleepiness of it all. There aren’t even any shops here. If you ask where the villa owners work, or what trade they are in, you are likely to be met with shrugs. "You usually don’t see them during the day. It’s almost like they don’t live here”, says a neighbour of rhino horn poaching kingpin Justice Ngovene, in Massingir.  “He and Navarra” (another poacher boss, LM) “don’t show themselves much.”

The neighbour then adds, with great urgency, that I must not identify or describe him in my story. ‘Because I could die.”  It is for the same reason that it is difficult to take photographs of the mansions, -at least without a very strong telephoto lens. I tried it once, in Massingir, and was quickly approached by people who intimated I should not do that.

The eroded houses belong to the dead

The big bosses have the biggest houses, but there are also plenty other nice-looking properties owned by young men in Magude, Chokwe and Massingir. These younger owners are the ones who carry out the rhino killings and horn theft on Navarra’s and Ngovene’s orders and, with the money they get from the kingpins, manage to house their families quite comfortably too.
Some houses, however, have been left unfinished, with the construction just standing there, slowly eroding. Their owners have been arrested, or killed in the Kruger Park. This has happened to 363 young men from these areas between 2008 and now. Death of young men is a normal, sometimes daily, occurrence in these districts. A similar number ends up in South African prisons: in the same period, 400 arrests were made.

When trying to interview families to understand how they feel about their children who went hunting, I am met with suspicion. "What wrong have I done? My son is dead and you guys always come to me to interview me. Why do you treat me like a criminal? I did not know what my son was doing”, says a mother.

This is what all families say: that they were unaware that their children were poachers. "We thought that he was selling cars in South Africa. He always went to South Africa and brought new cars all the time," says the mother of Carlos Penicela, who died in October 2012 in the Kruger Park on the side of the Mapulanguene border in Magude district. Thomas Cossa, a father of a killed son, says it was only when his son’s friends told him that he was shot in the Kruger Park that he found out that the young man had been a hunter.  “He told me he was in business in South Africa. He was doing so well. He always visited with a lot of money.”

In an interview with the Mozambican newspaper ‘Noticias’,  Magude government administrator Cristina Mafumo recently appealed to the inhabitants of the region to stop aiding and abetting the poaching practice. “No mother should be happy benefiting from wealth that will get their children killed,” she declared. “How can I live a nice life, knowing that sooner or later it will kill my child? No amount of money can replace a life. It is our young people who get massacred like chickens, whilst their bosses are resting in the shade of banana trees in the yards of their luxury homes and drive expensive cars.” The newspaper report didn’t indicate what Mafumo thought or thinks of her fellow administrators in Chokwe, all members of the ruling Frelimo party like her, who happily use poachers’ cars for campaigning during election time.

Smugglers’ territory

And it’s not just some corrupt councillors. Most people in the communities in Mozambique’s border areas seem, so far, reluctant to let go of a lavish source of money.  These regions have been smugglers’ territory for a long time already, after all. In the years of apartheid, the South African military worked with smugglers to transfer weapons to Mozambique’s ‘contra’ movement, Renamo. After that, it was car smuggling that brought in the big bucks. And recently, with the -predominantly Asian- market’s hunger for aphrodisiacs and equally ‘magic’ medicines made from rhino horn, which started booming in 2006, it is poaching.

The money is worth taking a risk. By Mozambican standards, it is a lot: for every rhino horn, a hunter receives between 200 000 and 300 000 Meticais (between 5 000 and 7 000 Euros). The bosses make many times more than that: in the South African and Asian markets, one horn can be sold for up to 50 000 Euros. Syndicate bosses Ngovene and Navarra in Magude, Mahetabanha in Massingir and Callisto in Chokwe, have not only built mansions for themselves, but are now investing in accommodation for rent and luxury hotels. Each of these men was involved in car smuggling before. They have been wanted by the South African justice system for years. And they command entire armies of poachers: many of these are high school students from the same towns, aged from 16 upwards, with some up to 35 years of age.  Upon joining the poaching bands, these young poachers are trained in the handling of these weapons -with silencers, to escape the attention of the Kruger Park guards.

Behind known syndicate and gang bosses like Ngovene and Navarra hide, however, still richer international dealers.  A study by University of South Africa (UNISA) lecturer Moses Monteish quotes Mozambican police sources as saying that at the top of the syndicate reside ‘rich citizens of Maputo, Inhambane and Gaza, as well as South African citizens and businessmen of Asian origin.’ “There are three levels in the business: the units that kill the rhinos; the buyers and then the exporters to the Asian markets.”

“Give us the stick and we bring you the product”

On the ground in the border regions, the poaching is assisted by rogue Mozambican policemen.  According to an ‘Information Document on Poaching’ obtained from the Gaza Border Guard’s second regiment, regional ‘poaching (militias) are headed by officials of the Mozambique Police Force and by retired military veterans of the Mozambican army.’

They are the ones who procure the guns.  According to Limpopo National Park rangers, speaking on condition of anonymity, it is a known practice for a Mozambican policeman to rent out his fire arm to poachers.  “They get about 7 000 Euros for a period of gun rental. And then they also get a share of the horns when they are sold”, one says, adding that the park rangers themselves are also offered deals of this type. “They come and tell us ‘give us the stick and we bring you the product’”, the ranger says. “This means: give us your gun and we will bring you the horn.”  It is almost an offer that can’t be refused:  a policeman or ranger can get to receive between 17 000 and 24 000 Euros in a relatively short time of ‘lease’ of his gun.

"If I had wanted to enter this business, I would not be here now. Colleagues of mine have defected to devote themselves to the slaughter of rhinos. Some of them have died”, says the ranger. His words are corroborated by the formal decision taken by the management of the Limpopo National Park, last year, to fire some guards and charge others for complicity with poaching. All in all, disciplinary proceedings are under way against thirty Limpopo rangers.

"It is tragic to know that they have now become the enemy in our fight to protect the species,” says António Abacar, administrator of the park.

Apologies to the prosecution

Illegal gun running for poachers is formally combated by the Mozambican authorities, but in reality, not so much.  Dockets from between 2011-2013 talk of cases where Police District Commanders helped give guns back to the poachers they were confiscated from and guns that were captured from dead poachers and also returned to their bosses. One very famous gun was captured by police and made its way back to poachers on no less than three occasions on the past three years.

Gun-running poachers, likewise, have been going back and forth between captivity and freedom. A poacher and illegal gun owner, Louis Mongue, was arrested and –after payment of a Euro 3 000 bribe- released by the Gaza police District Commander without even informing the prosecution. (Asked by the prosecutor why he did that, the District Commander simply apologised for the oversight). Police official Gerson Chauke, a gun-running kingpin in the Ngovese syndicate, only had to threaten that he would ‘report all the others’ to the prosecution if he didn’t get off, was promptly set free.

Chauke was, however, shot and killed in the Kruger Park shortly after his release. His poaching colleagues Silva and Vembane were also shot in the same period last year, in spite of having gone through traditional rituals meant to protect them from harm. The rites, that many poachers swear by –syndicate boss Mahetabanha doubles as traditional doctor himself- may help shield from the Mozambican justice system, but they don’t seem to work as well when it comes to the South African bullets.

Money for the commander

For now, whoever remains willing to defy death and survives, can be assured that the money will keep on coming, and that it can also buy continued freedom.  “It is no use trying to catch them”, says a Mozambican border policeman who now works with the very poachers that he used to chase after. “As soon as you arrest one, your superior will release them. All they have to do is pay a bribe of about 200 000 meticais (around 5 000 Euros, LM).”

It was when he went undercover in a poaching syndicate, to try to ‘understand, identify, and neutralize’ the poachers, that this Mozambican policeman discovered that there was no point. “I had managed to capture one of them and took him to the District Command. On the way, the man offered me 200 000 Meticais. I refused. He then warned me that he would be free the next day and the money would go to the District Commander instead of to me. I didn’t believe him then, but that was exactly what happened. I met the same guy the next day and he laughed at me, saying that the money that I didn’t want had now indeed gone to the commander.”

The policeman concluded that there was simply no sense in working to enrich commanders without ever getting a penny. “I am not a poacher. I don’t poach. But nowadays when I arrest poachers, I let them go if they pay me.”

Animals are either dangerous or for eating

At the bottom of it all is the truth that Mozambique, generally, does not care that much about rhinos. It is not just that many in the political elite and private sector benefit from the proceeds of rhino horn sales. The country is also simply not very ‘nature-preservation-aware’: animals are either for eating or they are dangerous to humans.  And, as in any country where organized crime pervades state structures, and much public service is lost because of corruption, why shouldn’t  ordinary people try to make a living too ?

When push comes to shove, it is the killing of the young men by South African bullets that upsets many Mozambicans more than the fate of the rhino.  For more than a year now, a R 100 000 (66 000 Euros) reward is in place, offered by the Kruger Park management, for ‘information that leads to the dismantling or destruction’ of poachers’ networks. It is not known how many have obtained this reward, or what they did to earn it, but one bounty hunter’s name keeps coming up in conversations with Mozambican hunters: that of ‘William the Rastaman’ rumoured to have killed several poachers, or suspected poachers, for money.

Innocent children

Even if the families of the dead will always claim that their child wasn’t a poacher, in some case this may actually be true. They may be no more than illegal migrants. “Our boys have always used this route to travel to South Africa”, says a resident from Mavoze village in Massingir. “They just executed my boy.  They have orders to do so. But he wasn’t a poacher.”  The man, who like many other residents asked to remain anonymous, still grieves because he could not bring his son’s body back home. “They don’t give us our children’s bodies to bury them.” Fellow resident Antonio Maluleque, who agrees to being named, is angry with the South African authorities. “They don’t care whether anybody is a poacher or not. They just kill. Many of our innocent children are killed brutally.”

Other citizens in these border areas express the same concern. All believe the South African police to be unnecessarily cruel. Some do, however, relate it back to the cruelty shown to the rhinos by the poachers. "Maybe we are all victims of the people who hunt rhinos," ventures a resident hesitantly. “Maybe the cruelty starts with them.”

A crime that isn’t a crime

A Memorandum of Understanding, signed last year between Mozambican and South African authorities, prompts both sides to combat poaching. The problem, however, remains that rhino poaching is still not formally a crime in Mozambique and the Mozambican authorities seem reluctant to pass a law that says that it is. Like many Mozambican citizens, they also seem to be mostly concerned with the loss of Mozambican lives in the Kruger Park. “We must defend nature, but we also need to respect human life. We want to discuss the issue of poaching, but also the treatment of Mozambicans involved in movements (through the Kruger Park, LM),” in the words of Defence Minister Filipe Nyussi.

His colleague, Foreign Affairs Minister Oldemiro Baloi, has supported this stance by expressing worries about “the extreme violence with which Mozambicans have been treated (by the SA police) when they commit crimes. We know that poachers (when captured) are usually dead." His deputy, Eduardo Coloma, added that among the dead are also ‘Mozambicans who are mistaken for poachers’.

This concern for Mozambican lives may be genuine, or partly informed by the vast proceeds from rhino horn poaching that flow to many in the Mozambican state and private sector elite. Whatever the case may be, based on the agreement with South Africa, seven Mozambican police officers were arrested in January this year for facilitating the acquisition and rental of weapons for rhino slaughter. Among the detainees are some who were also implicated in earlier cases: the district police commander of Massingir, the head of the Gaza  Provincial Operations Command in Gaza and the Chief of Operations in Gaza’s provincial capital Xai-Xai. Further detainees are an agent of the Traffic Police, the son of the provincial director of the Bureau of Finance of the police in Gaza, four fiscal police reservists and a traditional healer.  The suspects were arrested last year December after stealing a batch of rhino horn from a group of poachers and subsequently selling them.  According to the Mozambican police, they were reported by a citizen of Massingir who said he owned the horns.

They are free, for now, on bail of 700 Euro each.

Lázaro Mabunda (37) is an award winning investigative journalist for O Pais in Mozambique. His work on poaching in Mozambique’s border areas has resulted in serious death threats.

Read more here.