In Mozambique, the Meager Opulence of Rhino Poaching

In the poacher towns of Mozambique that border South Africa’s enormous Kruger National Park, young men hand-thread the barrels of old rifles to fit them with silencers, then slip barefoot across the border into South Africa to shoot endangered rhinos for their horns. Back home, they build ‘mansions’ in their hometowns’ millionaires row-rude shacks built of brick instead of reeds. The Star‘s reporter crosses the border into Mozambique to report on the poacher’s life.

Since 2008, rhinoceros poaching in southern Africa has increased dramatically, as organized crime syndicates took over the trade in horns, ultimately destined for east Asian markets. From a low of about a dozen rhinos killed in South Africa in 2007, the number of poached animals has risen steadily to over 600 last year, a rate which would eventually lead to the animal’s extinction. In Mozambique’s animal reserve, poachers killed all of the remaining rhinos last month.

1. A Phlegmatic Anti-Poacher Patrol

Kabok, Western Mozambique – You can’t find this town on Google Earth, and it appears on no maps.

From space all it is is a scatter of buildings that straddle the only tar road that cuts through this remote part of western Mozambique.

The place is known as Kabok and for a town that appears to have nothing, it sure is going through an economic boom.

And from a dirt track we could see Kabok’s new-found wealth first- hand. What we were looking at was Kabok’s millionaires’ row, where the untouchables live.

“This is a rhino town,” explains the anti-poaching officer who is acting as our guide.

He wants to remain anonymous.

On the tar road, a red hatchback speeds past, the driver’s head snaps to the side and takes a good look at us. We have been noticed.

“He is a poacher,” says the anti-poaching officer.

Two minutes later, the red car drives past in the opposite direction; he eyeballs us again.

Others along the tar road stare too. The poachers, pointed out by the officer, stand out. Their style of dress says city, their clothes are bright and clean, they sport new jeans, some have neck chains.

No faded paper-thin cotton shirts, like the rest of Kabok wears.

They loiter around spaza shops [home-based convenience stores], they swagger.

But we are here to see millionaires’ row. In front of us, dotted on a slight rise, are Kabok’s mansions – the houses the rhino poachers built for themselves.

In neighbouring South Africa, these mansions would be called matchboxes. Most are flat-roofed, single-storeyed structures. Some look similar to RDP houses [public housing]. But what separates these homes from the usual reed houses in Kabok is that they are made from brick.

This part of Mozambique is dirt poor and the remnants of the civil war scar the landscape and the psyche of the people. War amputees wander the dirt roads.

The new Kabok has been built on the horns of the hundreds of rhinos slaughtered just kilometres away in Kruger National Park. It is not alone – there are other towns spread along the border that lines Kruger National Park. They are the staging posts for rhino poachers.

“That house there with the pink curtains – he is a poacher,” says the officer. “You see that white house there, that poacher was shot dead, but his family still lives there.”

There was a time when the bordering Corumane Dam supplied the community with its main source of income – fishing. Now, under the silvery full moon, fishermen ferry poachers across the lake, rowing them up the Sabie River and dropping them close to the Kruger fence.

In South Africa Kabok has long had the reputation of being a haven for robbers and hijackers who take refuge across the border.

Rhino economics filters through the town, the anti-poaching officer explains. Everyone gets a piece of the pie, builders are paid to construct those houses. Spaza shops have sprung up, some built with rhino money. The funeral industry, it appears, gets its cut too.

Then there are the guns for hire.

“There are those who come from Maputo to hire people in Kabok to poach,” explains the officer.

And the majority of residents in the Kabok mansions have become middlemen. They now recruit younger men to do their hunting.

We drive along the dirt road, we turn a corner and there is the red hatchback. The driver is standing next to three other men at a spaza shop. Again he stares, but this time smiles and waves at the anti-poaching officer. The officer waves back. They know each other.

There is little the officer can do to catch this untouchable.

We drive on.

On the outskirts of the town we park and watch. The sun has slipped behind the wall of the Corumane Dam, and in the late afternoon light herders drive their cattle along the tar road into town.

A black Landcruiser glides past.

“That man there is wanted in South Africa and now stays in Mozambique,” says the officer.

“He is a poacher.”

We later learn that the man in the Landcruiser is Frank Ubisi.

For two years he was wanted by the SAPS, Captain Oubaas Coetzer, the spokesman for Skukuza police station, tells us later. He was caught in Kruger in 2010 with a hunting rifle, but later escaped from custody.

Last February he was caught at the Lebombo border post trying to smuggle the body of a poacher across the border. He paid a fine of R10 000 for possession of an illegal firearm and was deported to Mozambique. Ubisi’s Landcruiser draws to a stop outside a collection of reed shacks alongside the road.

The door opens and a man, perhaps in his late teens, struggles out.

His T-shirt is stained with mud, his hair coated in dust. He limps slowly to one of the shacks, opens the door and disappears.

I am flabbergasted.

“He is a poacher, he has come back from Kruger,” I say.

The officer shrugs his shoulders and gives a smile.

2. The Legendary Though Unlucky Bigfoot

The man with the big feet would leave his flip-flops at the fence. Barefooted he’d slip across the fence into Kruger National Park, alone, carrying a .375 calibre rifle fitted with a silencer. On his back was a bag filled with bread, water and an assortment of pills he would later crush up and smoke with tobacco.

Some of the pills were for heartburn, and he never really explained why he smoked it.

For protection against the rangers, a muti [traditional medicine]string hung from his rucksack.

On the Mozambican side of Kruger National Park, the poacher’s big feet were well known. His barefooted tracks in and out of the park had been seen often.

Anti-poaching units working the Mozambican side of Kruger had wanted to catch the man to see if he was as big as his feet promised.

But before the poacher with the big feet got near the fence, he had to pass a test.

As a young man wanting to earn money as a poacher he headed to the shebeens [bars]of Mugude. There he met the middlemen who looked for recruits willing to chance the section rangers, dogs and helicopters.

But could he shoot? In the bush he was handed a rifle and told to shoot at a Coke bottle. He hit the bottle, so was asked to demonstrate his tracking skills. Children learn to track from an early age in this part of Mozambique. As herders they know their cattle not by name but from each unique cloven imprint left in the dust. Bigfoot knew how to track.

In the area where Bigfoot operated, Kruger’s rusting fence is sometimes nothing more than four strands.

After slipping off his flip-flops – barefoot is quieter – Bigfoot would make his way to a pre-arranged meeting site to the other two members of his poaching crew.

They had crossed into the park from other points along the fence. Their foray into the park could be at night, or sometimes even in the middle of the day. Once together, their search for rhino spoor began. They had to be careful, not only of the rangers, but of other poachers.

If Bigfoot had bumped into other poachers, he said he would have killed them, and taken their horn.

But he claims he never did meet any poachers in the large park.

When he moved at night, Bigfoot picked out stars in the expanse of the Milky Way and used them to find direction. But even for someone with Bigfoot’s bush skills, finding a rhino was potluck. He said he only shot one rhino. The kill was at close range in thick bush, he was less than 30m away. A hatchet was used to hack the horn off and they raced for the border.

Bigfoot made 10 sorties into Kruger. His luck ran out on the 11th.

A rival syndicate ratted him out. Night ambushes and roadblocks were set up.

The following morning the tired officers were drinking tea during a break when one of them noticed Bigfoot and a friend walking towards them.

Bigfoot gave up easily

The anti-poaching unit discovered he was as tall as his feet had suggested – nearly 2m (6 feet 6 inches).

Then Bigfoot did something unexpected – he snitched.

He told his captors where the pick-up car would be netting two of his accomplices in a Hilux bakkie with an anti-poaching sticker on the vehicle.

And Bigfoot wasn’t finished talking.

He told how he would slip across the border, how he was recruited, how he used those stars.

Bigfoot was handed over and arrested by Mozambican police.

He has been sent to Maputo to stand trial for possession of an illegal firearm.

If the charges stick, his large feet may have left their last spoor on those tracks leading to Kruger.

3. CSI Africa-on the Cheap

Jasper doesn’t know the faces of the men he hunts; he recognises them from the soles of their shoes.

He gathers shoe prints left in the dust, like other men collect stamps, or rare coins.

There is a whole database of them on his cellphone, photographed and stored alongside pictures of some of the rhinos the owners of those shoes have slaughtered.

There are the prints of the man who walks with his feet splayed like a duck. There is an assortment of footwear worn by the men who make their living killing in Kruger National Park.

It is not only their feet that tell their stories – it is also what is disregarded on the track. He finds cigarette butts, the tins of fish they have eaten and the muti they have offered for a good hunt.

“Someone is supplying money or rations. This is organised, guys are recruited with firearms, food,” he says.

He also sees their cruelty.

“If the rhino has been wounded, they won’t use another bullet, they will use the hatchet to strike the rhino’s back to break its spine.”

The rhino will still be alive when poachers hack off the horn. “The squealing must be horrendous.” Often the eye of the rhino is also slashed, a superstition meant to ensure a future successful hunt.

Jasper is not alone: from Massingir in the north to close to the Lebombo border post to the south are people fighting the rhino war from the Mozambican side. They are a thin line trying to plug a border that is over 150km long, trying to stop poachers before they reach Kruger.

Some are better equipped than others: they have anti-poaching teams that can mount patrols. Others have to rely on the lackadaisical assistance of the Mozambican army and police. This comes down to who has the best bush skills – trackers pitted against poachers. It is CSI Africa, the joke goes.

While there is co-operation between South Africans and the private poaching units, the complaint is with the Mozambican authorities. “In Mozambique, poaching is usually just a misdemeanour,” says Tom Milliken of Traffic, which monitors the illegal trade.

The preferred weapon of choice for poachers in Kruger National Park has become the large-calibre hunting rifle, typically used to bring down big game like buffalo, elephant and rhino.

But the mystery is: Where do these guns come from, and who has the know-how and equipment to fit the silencers that law enforcement authorities are increasingly finding on these weapons?

Some anti-poaching personnel suspect that these guns might have been smuggled into Mozambique from somewhere else.

But organisations like the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) say there is no evidence of this.

Then again, no one, it appears, has been looking.

Usually the focus is on the movement of illegal military weapons.

Poachers have been arrested with an assortment of weapons; some of them older models, others practically new.

A poacher was recently arrested with a new .375 calibre rifle that would cost between R16 000 and R18 000 ($1700-2000)in South Africa. It is not known if this weapon was stolen.

A police source said these weapons often didn’t come up as stolen in South Africa. They also differ from the guns poachers were using to hunt elephants in Kruger National Park three decades ago.

These, said one policeman, were old, often with stocks that had been eaten by termites. They might have come from an arms cache.

One source for these weapons could be Mozambique.

“From my understanding, control over hunting rifles in Mozambique is virtually non-existent,” said Ben Coetzee, a senior researcher with the ISS Arms Management Programme. “Firearms get lost and aren’t reported stolen all the time, making it very easy for the dedicated poacher to identify a hunter and to steal the weapon once it is unguarded.”

He said it could also be easy to smuggle these types of hunting guns into the country. They could be brought in in small numbers by ship, or flown in by small plane.

There is enough money to be made that the will, researchers believe, is there.

“Rhino horn has become such a high-value commodity that these guys are pulling out all the stops,” explained Tom Milliken of Traffic.

Poachers use silencers to muffle the sound of the gunshot.

A thread must be cut into the barrel for the silencer to be screwed on.

“If you are willing to take the risk, it can be done with hand tools,” said Coetzee.

Shaun Smillie