The town that thrives on rhino horn

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Mozambique rhino story. 270313.
Picture: Chris Collingridge
799Mozambique rhino story. The frontier town of Capoc. New houses built with little evidence of an established economy. The small town is allegedly the product of the illegal trade in rhino horn. 270313.
Picture: Chris Collingridge

Words by Shaun Smillie, photographs by Chris Collingridge

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, 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. 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. 

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