Al J. Venter, reporting from the
Niassa National Park, Northern Mozambique
There have been many raids over the years on the haunts of elephant and other wildlife poachers in Northern Mozambique. This one was unique.
It was the first time that a combined Para-military force was linked to other armed security elements in the region with the intention of arresting criminals supplying Chinese interests in Dar es Salaam with ivory: its participants included local police, game guards armed with Kalashnikovs as well as small group of wildlife vigilantes.
Some details about the operation – but not all – were laid out on the night before the operation was due to commence. The local police chief, the warden of Niassa National Park and a small group of planners had information about a group of mainly Tanzanian nationals who had been poaching elephants in this extreme northern Mozambique region for the past two or three years, but until then, by all accounts, they appeared to be ‘above the law’.
The damage these people had caused was severe. A 2011 count of elephants in the park showed that there was a healthy population of about 12 000 of these beasts, making it one of Africa's most important populations of tuskers. Since then however, poaching predation has been severe.
The United States-based Wildlife Conservation Society has estimated that poachers living in the Niassa Region are responsible for slaughtering more than 1 000 elephants a year.
Still more worrying, these felons are financed by foreign interests based mainly in Tanzania, though this criminal element has tentacles that stretch all the way down to Maputo, 1,600 miles to the south. An immediate consequence is that South Africa’s eastern neighbour and conservation partner has lost half its elephants in the past five or six years.
The raid in the Niassa Game Reserve would take place in a northern tribal village within the confines of the park itself. All other details were kept secret, with zero-hour set for 4am the following morning.
So it happened: the arrest of six of the most prominent members of one of the biggest poaching cartels operating in Northern Mozambique. Newspapers in Maputo followed up with details of what it headlined ‘Major Poaching Gang Broken.’
Reports of the raid were also carried by newspapers in the US and Britain: a major breakthrough. Four of the six people taken into custody were Tanzanian nationals. Also notable was the fact that two top quality.375 Magnum hunting rifles, loads of ammunition and about $150 000 worth of ivory was recovered. Several AK-47 automatic rifles as well as pistols were also seized.
Though no photos appeared with the reports, I was able to obtain several - both of the poachers and their ivory haul, seen here - because I was on safari at one of the Luwire game camps at the time. What also emerged from documents recovered by the police during the course of the raid was that there were five or six more gangs operational in that region. These showed both their identities and operational bases (today all computer-based with a subsequent international exchange of intelligence).
The Niassa raid was an extremely difficult operation. The poachers have made good money over the years and there is evidence they have infiltrated their own people into the Mozambique security services. They also have ‘friends in high places’, which was why they have been able to operate almost without fear of arrest for so long. More to the point, as detailed below, they are extremely dangerous. Those who stand in their way are liquidated: game department officials are regularly being targeted.
Poachers operating in the Niassa Game Reserve murdered Gilberto Vicento, the internationally-recognised head of the Maputo Special Wildlife Reserve. A dedicated conservationist, his assassination, in which AKs were used, was widely felt within the industry. It also made some Mozambique officials circumspect about their own safety and possibly also becoming targets.
Things became even more serious after Derek Littleton, my host at the Lugenda Wildlife Reserve – Luwire (which forms a large section of the Niassa Game Park) was targeted by an eight-man hit squad last time he and his partner Paula Ferro visited Maputo. They had to seek police protection and they got it, but obviously these things are worrying.
But suddenly, things were different. Clearly, after six of the prime movers within the ivory poaching community were apprehended, the authorities were jubilant. All the men were held in close custody in the local prison to await transport for trial, but two days later they mysteriously broke free.
What emerged a short time afterwards was that somebody working for the Mozambique prisons department had opened the doors of their cells in the middle of the night. By morning the criminals were across the Ruvuma River in Tanzania and, as somebody commented, ‘untouchable’.
They were even able to leave with their expensive, hand-made crocodile skin shoes and silk shirts, the same ones they were wearing when they were arrested.
That part of Northern Mozambique where this drama took place must be one of Africa’s most beautiful wildlife regions, which says a lot because the game reserve is almost 250 miles long and twice as big as the Kruger National Park in South Africa.
This is a wild, primeval, half-a-million hectares that was remote even during Portuguese rule and where Lisbon fought some of its most harrowing battles during the so-called ‘Colonial War’ of the 1960s and mid-1970s.
Lying close to the Tanzanian frontier – the great Ruvuma River (into which the Luwire flows) forms a natural boundary, with the result that Niassa Province and the adjacent Mueda Plateau were almost custom made for laying Soviet anti-tank mines by FRELIMO guerrillas.
Yet today there is little evidence of that conflict that ended in 1974. The mines are ‘certified’ as having all been lifted and the region contains some of the most remote and isolated bush country I have ever visited.
Travel by road from Pemba Bay, the biggest port in the north and it takes a good quality all-terrain 4x4 all of 12 or 14 hours to cover the 240-something miles, and several hours more when it rains.
Most people fly, of course, but that is expensive, it costs $500 to travel the distance in a small plane from Pemba to Luwire (and almost as much to get to Pemba from Johannesburg, in large part because Pemba is now the core of Mozambique’s oil industry:) so tourists who come here are mostly from Europe and America.
That said, the experience of flying from Pemba to Luwire is like few others on the continent, usually at fairly low level to take in the scenery. Much of the terrain is dotted by tall granite mini-mountains, some two or three thousand feet high. There are few towns or settlements along the way, which might be one of the reasons why a major tourist magazine featuring the area recently suggested that visiting the place was like ‘following the footsteps of David Livingstone’ (who records visiting the place in his diaries).
Prince Harry is also a fan of Luwire and has been there several times, always with his personal bodyguard in tow. A good friend of one of the professional hunters there (a small part of wildlife reserve is devoted to controlled hunting). His Royal Highness raised cash for Luwire (and two or three other conservation enterprises) among his friends in London several times. This usually goes towards keeping Luwire’s vehicles going and to buy fuel that has to be hauled overland in from the coast.
Derek Littleton, who hosted me during my stay (and Prince Harry when he visits) originally ‘discovered’ the place as a potential tourist haven and went in there 10 or 12 years ago. He found a land that had been utterly ravaged by poachers.
A remarkable, quiet-spoken and totally committed enthusiast - the same man who poaching gangs targeted on a visit to the capital - has dedicated a fair proportion of his adult life in a bid to create one of the finest wildlife reserves in Africa. Through it all, he has emerged as a visionary with great hopes and confidence for this corner of Africa, though he does admit that he sometimes battles frightening odds.
Undeterred, he sought and got government sanction to establish an armed protection unit of scouts which has worked very well. He started by training a bunch of locals in wildlife protection, put them through courses of ‘weapons instruction’ and armed them with AK-47s, issued by the government. Initially he had about 40 scouts, with the number currently at about 60, the idea being to increase that strength to 160 by this time next year if he gets the funding from mostly American donors.
In the process Derek and Paula have managed to carve a series of minor paradises out of the bush, many of them tented camps that blend in well with the environment and where elephants are regular callers after dark. We had one big old tusker outside our tent for almost an hour one evening feeding on nuts that had fallen from a big old palm tree that some hunter from an earlier era had probably planted generations ago.
Another consequence of Derek Littleton’s efforts is that Niassa now has the fourth or fifth largest concentration on lions on the African continent and in this too, he has taken the lead in predator conservation.
Other wildlife species have increased exponentially. For instance, after Derek arrived in Mozambique, he did a quick survey on the impala population. In a 120 mile drive - from one end of the reserve to the other a decade ago, he counted 102 impala. Last month, in a quarter of the distance (about 30 miles) he counted more than 500.
As one journalist commented, ‘Niassa is reminiscent of the African Garden of Eden’ and for good reason. Luwire can count on most of the classic species including lion, leopard, buffalo and rare subspecies such as the endangered Niassa wildebeest, Boehms zebra, Roosevelt’s sable antelope, Johnstone impala and the imperiled African wild dog.
But here, too, the poachers have made inroads. There is now a steady demand for lion and leopard skins, claws, heads and bones in Mainland China. Of late, a lot of these predators have been killed, many falling victim of wire snares that are laid across primitive tracks often used by the animals when hunting. In one recent raid, a professional hunter working in an adjacent concession discovered 100 yard-lengths of wire, already shaped as snares for laying as traps. He reckoned the load must have weighed half a ton and had probably been brought across the border from Mozambique by boat.
A visit to Luwire can be problematical because this is bush in the raw. There are lions about so you don’t wander about after dark. Also, there are snakes everywhere: we had a puff adder next to our tent and Derek refused to kill it. Instead, he gingerly lifted it up with a stick and returned it to the bush.
Then my wife Caroline took two hits from a scorpion while showering (the rains had just started) and we had to compete with bats in our tent, which though sealed with zippers at ground level, was partly open to the stars.
On the negative side, poachers have slaughtered nearly half of Mozambique’s elephants for their ivory in the past five years, the US Wildlife Conservation Society recently announced in a Mozambique government-backed survey that there had been a dramatic 48 percent decline in elephant numbers ‘from just over 20,000 to an estimated 10,300’.
‘This decline is due to rampant elephant poaching in the country’s most important elephant populations,” the WCS declared.
This sad loss can be explained by the arrival of poachers from Tanzania, where the elephant population has already been decimated, according to Alastair Nelson, director of WCS in Mozambique, whose organization administers the Niassa Reserve.
‘The major issue is one of governance. The north has always been a remote and poorly governed area, with an underlying level of corruption,’ he told a French news agency.
‘Some district police and border guards are being paid off, some even rent out their own firearms (to kill elephants and other animals).’
In May last year, police in Mozambique said they had seized 1.3 tons of elephant ivory and rhino horn – the result of killing about 200 animals. As a consequence, an Asian man was arrested on the outskirts of the capital Maputo at a house where the stash was stored.
The police raid discovered 340 elephant tusks, weighing 2,600 pounds , and 65 rhino horns. And that in spite of the fact that almost all of Mozambique’s rhino have been poached: so those uncovered probably came from South African game parks.
The cache was reported to have a street value of about US$6.3m.
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