Guns and rhi­nos

Hunt arms deal­ers, not poach­ers

Sunday Times - - Insight - By KATHI LYNN AUSTIN

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

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


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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