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Cape Town - Mansions are springing up in the poverty-stricken villages lying along the border of South Africa and Mozambique. With air-conditioning and modern finishes, they lie in the midst of villagers who often have no access to water. Cars stolen from South Africa whizz by, sometimes driven by boys as young as 16. There’s music, women, drinking.
It’s the rhino war zone – villages that lie along the border between South Africa and Mozambique where warlords rule with impunity and young villagers are lured into poaching by wads of cash.
“Picture a local rhino warlord, who just had millions of meticai, the currency in Mozambique, deposited into his account because of a successful poaching effort, slaughters several cattle to celebrate his windfall and gives the people in the village food to eat, and at the celebration are guards and supposed anti-poaching teams,” said Kingsley Holgate, explorer and humanitarian, recalling what he had seen in his latest expedition, the Izintaba Zobombo Expedition.
The expedition is at the tail end of its three-month journey, and it took Holgate and his team along southern Africa’s Lebombo Mountain Range from near Punda Maria in the north of the Kruger National Park to the historic Ghost Mountain Inn in Mkuze, northern KZN.
The expedition covered South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland, and the team met villagers, and spoke to community leaders and conservationists – people at the coalface of the rhino poaching epidemic.
The expedition is backed by Project Rhino KZN, an association of organisations working towards combating rhino poaching, by combining resources and campaigns. Soccer games, school visits, cyclists, art competitions and plays have all been part of the expedition’s activities to engage the communities about rhino poaching.
Up until the end of May, 33 rhinos had been poached in KZN and 24 people arrested for suspected poaching. Since the beginning of this year, 367 rhinos have been poached in South Africa, while last year 668 rhinos were killed nationally.
Holgate said learning how the syndicates operated within the villages was an eye-opener.
He said residents know the poachers by name and the vehicles they drive, and even know when a horn is passing through the village.
“It is shocking. The poachers travel in vehicles stolen from SA, and move with impunity,” said Holgate.
He said 30 game rangers from the Parque Nacional do Limpopo were in jail awaiting trial for being involved in rhino poaching.
What’s more, private game companies struggled to get firearm licences for their anti-poaching units.
“Some are only armed with pepper spray and a radio,” said Holgate.
“It is so bad that when the rhinos move from SA into Mozambique within the park, their average lifespan is only 48 hours. Knowing this, the rangers try to herd the rhinos back into SA, but as they are doing this – remember armed with only pepper spray – the poachers are coming from behind armed with AK47s and axes,” said Holgate. “It is so dangerous, but there are brave rangers out there.”
In another frightening example of how poachers were laying claim to the area, Holgate said one of the poachers, well known to the community, was building a “massive tourist lodge” on the outskirts of the town of Massangiri.
“But what happens when there are no animals in the area, what will tourists see then?” he said. “But the poachers fail to see that.”
One poacher drives an expensive Land Cruiser, and uses different colour cooldrink crates on the roof rack and drives through town. The colour becomes a code for the young poachers to go to a particular place in the moonlight to get ready for poaching.
“It’s an entire network operating, and it is being allowed to happen because no real action is being taken against the poachers,” said Holgate.
The town of Chokwe, which is considered to be the capital city of stolen cars in Mozambique – cars from South Africa – is “like the wild west”.
“Kids are driving stolen cars,” said Holgate. “There is utter lawlessness. The expedition team found no roadblocks on the route from Massangiri to the EN1, to check vehicles coming from the border fence. It creates a poaching mecca.”
In another incident while the team was out, R1-million allegedly changed hands with a man in a village who poached horns.
“There are no other work opportunities in these villages. Everything is a struggle, and then to have this kind of money... these men cannot help but be lured into poaching,” said Holgate.
He said it was ironic that the rhino is still used on the 20 meticai note as well as on the R10 note.
“It’s greed for money that’s fuelling the poaching but it’s also the greed from South East Asia that is causing this to happen,” he said.
“There is so much that needs to be done, and we have been trying to reach the children, talk to the mothers and the village leaders, and hopefully we can change something.” - Weekend Argus