Gunning for rhinos

Part one: The town that thrives on rhino horn
Part two: Bigfoot versus the rhino

This is CSI Africa
Gunning for rhinos

KILLING FIELD: Silencers are used by poachers in their pursuit of rhinos, whose bodies are left where they fall until all that is left are bones. Pictures: Chris Collingridge. Credit: INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS

Johannesburg - 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 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. - The Star