Sunday Times

Guns and rhinos

Hunt arms dealers, not poachers


In September 2014, I travelled to an air force base on the outskirts of Pretoria to attend the biennial Africa Aerospace and Defence expo, Africa’s biggest arms show and South Africa’s top-grossing event. A side theme of the arms trade fair was antipoachi­ng efforts. I was there first to see for myself the cutting-edge weaponry and technology that was being marketed by the world’s leading arms companies for use in Africa’s so-called “poaching wars”, and second, to meet rhino protectors serving on the frontlines so I could learn about the poachers’ guns.

As I made my way through hangar-sized exhibition halls and cavernous show floors, sales representa­tives were keen to point out which of the military-grade armaments and dazzling technology products on display best suited antipoachi­ng operations. Beyond the usual firepower, I was introduced to the world’s most advanced drones with briefcase-sized dataproces­sing systems; sophistica­ted electronic and infrared detection equipment; and aircraft specially adapted for secret surveillan­ce of wildlife range areas.

Among the trade show’s countless exhibits of military hardware, I discovered private military companies out in full force. They too were hoping to cash in on the antipoachi­ng industry growth spurt. The promotiona­l websites and brochures of some suggested that while the firm might have sprung up nearly overnight, its staff had military experience in places like Afghanista­n and Iraq or during South Africa’s apartheid wars.

These private companies advertised everything from the deployment of combat-style security forces to intelligen­ce-gathering services to training aimed at turning rangers and dogs into battle-ready forces prepared to kill any would-be poachers on sight.

With attraction­s for the whole family, the event could not have done more to signify the growing trend towards the militarisa­tion of conservati­on in the public eye. Sunglass-wearing ranger dogs jumping from helicopter­s in a demonstrat­ion of an antipoachi­ng operation entertaine­d parents as much as their kids. Schoolchil­dren were only too eager to line up and pay for the opportunit­y to place their rainbow-painted handprints on the exterior of a tank in a show of antipoachi­ng solidarity.

The trade show certainly proved to me that a military-style arms race with the rhino-poaching syndicates was in full swing.

The use of military assets and strategies on behalf of conservati­on efforts is not new. Modern, militarise­d forms of antipoachi­ng stretch back to the 1970s and 1980s when rhinos and elephants last faced wholesale slaughter. The most recent chapter in

South Africa’s militarisa­tion of conservati­on began about six years ago in response to the uptick in rhino carnage that exploded in the Kruger National Park.

Armed interventi­on focused on guarding against incursions and stopping poachers is a fairly common fall-back position. However, the costly entrenchme­nt of the military option at the expense of addressing wider political, security and sustainabl­e developmen­t issues may ultimately doom the rhino species.

Since poachers are merely replaceabl­e foot soldiers, “whack a mole” approaches treat only the symptoms. The motives of poachers are diverse and complex, a reality that the militarise­d spin in popular media tends to obscure and dehumanise.

Driven by poverty

Many poachers are driven by poverty. A great number have found themselves vulnerable to coercion by organised wildlife trafficker­s in league with corrupt leaders and officials. Others are lashing out at policies banning them from age-old subsistenc­e hunting grounds to make room for sport hunters, safari operators and wealthy foreign tourists.

More antipoachi­ng firepower may result in more interdicti­ons or poachers being killed, but approaches designed to tackle only poachers skew solutions in the wrong direction. The real problem is a demanddriv­en, globalised black-market trade fuelled by powerful transnatio­nal crime organisati­ons, which militarise­d antipoachi­ng initiative­s alone are incapable of solving.

Beyond incorporat­ing reactive antipoachi­ng strategies long in use, this modern militarise­d era has been boosted by innovative trends that continue to rise in popularity. Chief among them are the use of emerging technologi­es, the deployment of foreign forces, a hefty reliance on private security contractor­s and the transforma­tion of conservanc­ies into quasimilit­arised protection zones with all sorts of new bells and whistles.

During three years of frontline research on the rhino-poaching crisis, I found that these new assets reveal as much about what is being tried as about what is missing to protect both vulnerable rhinos and humans from the twin dangers of industrial-scale poaching and wildlife crime.

Rhino poaching is no longer perceived exclusivel­y as a conservati­on issue. Over the past decade, wildlife crime has steadily climbed the rungs as a global threat. In Africa and elsewhere, this lucrative scourge — with an estimated annual value of between $7-billion and $23-billion (between R94-billion and R309-billion) — has fuelled corruption, inflamed conflict and undermined the rule of law.

Although the crime typically starts with the poaching of rhinos, the villains responsibl­e for the illegal supply chains and traffickin­g of horn are transnatio­nal criminal organisati­ons, more commonly called “syndicates”.

For this reason, conflating conservati­on and modern warfare strategies without due attention to law-enforcemen­t tools does little more than buy time, if that, for heavily endangered rhino population­s.

Even well-disposed military antipoachi­ng operations have their limitation­s when trying to outgun poachers more familiar with the terrain.

In nearly every conflict I have covered over 25 years, I have found corrupt forces using the cover of militarise­d operations to pillage what is within easy reach. And then there’s the problem of military-grade weaponry ending up in the wrong hands, stoking more conflict and more poaching.

Behind the tourist picture of Kruger National Park is a shadow world. Besides the ugly business of poaching, its landscape is fraught with an arms race between the world’s most dangerous traffickin­g syndicates and the forces arrayed against them.

This shadow world contains a fortress termed an “intensive protection zone” where rhinos are guarded with more robust firepower and military resources than in outlying areas. The park’s recent decision to deploy grenade launchers where hundreds of thousands of visitors and wildlife herds roam together is but one example of a desperate measure for desperate times.

Rangers serving on the frontlines are at greatest personal risk as a result of wildlife agencies militarisi­ng the conflict with poachers.

Environmen­tal Affairs Minister Edna Molewa minced no words when she stated on World Ranger Day in July 2017 that almost all South Africa’s ranger corps had been converted to antipoachi­ng units.

Commercial poachers have followed suit, with better equipment and more violent tactics. The cycles of violence have bled donors and state treasuries while putting more rangers, poachers and animals — mostly rhinos — in the crossfire. In the dead of night, the hunters often cannot be distinguis­hed from the hunted, which is why so many from national park forces in South Africa have died from “friendly fire”.

Almost my entire profession­al career has focused on the role that guns play in armed conflicts. I have made it my mission to look at the weapons used by both sides before proposing solutions to enhance security. Which brings me back to my second goal in attending Africa’s largest arms trade show. I had every reason to believe I would learn details about the poachers’ guns from the top-notch antipoachi­ng agencies that were present.

Gun and ammunition supply chains

I was mistaken. There was hardly even tacit recognitio­n of the need to tackle the gun and ammunition supply chains that are a linchpin in the rhino syndicates’ vast criminal conspiracy. Caught up as they are in the day-to-day battle against the foot soldiers, antipoachi­ng forces tend to be reactive rather than preventive. They seldom build up the expertise and trade-craft — or have the mandate — to proficient­ly tackle highly organised crime machines, let alone their weapon sources.

A well-known approach for uncovering criminal organisati­ons is to “follow the guns”. This can be done readily with crime scene evidence at hand, but is overlooked by the conservati­on community.

Tonight, I join forces with Carte Blanche to bring audiences an extraordin­ary investigat­ion trailing the rhino poachers’ guns. I built dossiers against some of the biggest trafficker­s in the world — like the convicted Russian death merchant Viktor Bout — and more recently trained my sights on the underworld of transnatio­nal arms merchants aiding and abetting the illegal rhino horn trade.

The real problem is a demand-driven, globalised black-market trade fuelled by powerful transnatio­nal crime organisati­ons

Follow the Guns, produced by Sasha Schwendenw­ein and arms traffickin­g investigat­or Kathi Lynn Austin, airs on Carte Blanche tonight on M-Net (DStv channel 101) at 7pm and again on M-Net Plus 1 (DStv channel 901) at 8pm

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 ??  ?? From left, a rifle with a silencer confiscate­d from a poacher, rhino horns seized from poachers being burnt in Mozambique, and a rhino’s head from which the horn has been hacked off. Pictures courtesy of Carte Blanche and TBG Archive
From left, a rifle with a silencer confiscate­d from a poacher, rhino horns seized from poachers being burnt in Mozambique, and a rhino’s head from which the horn has been hacked off. Pictures courtesy of Carte Blanche and TBG Archive
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 ??  ?? BLUNT FORCE After a rhino has been shot, poachers use crude instrument­s such as this axe to chop out the horn — leaving a hole in the rhino’s face, a ghastly sight.
BLUNT FORCE After a rhino has been shot, poachers use crude instrument­s such as this axe to chop out the horn — leaving a hole in the rhino’s face, a ghastly sight.

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