ONE of the most depressing news stories I have read recently (other than those on Jacob Zuma being re-elected president of the ANC, and hence of the country, and Kgalema Motlanthe stepping down) was my colleague Melanie Gosling’s story “Fashion and myths fuel illicit wildlife trafficking” on Wednesday.

Reporting on a WWF report, Fighting Illicit Wildlife Trafficking, she cited figures on global trafficking of $10 billion (R85.14bn) a year in wildlife products, $7bn in illegal timber, and $9.5bn in fisheries trade.

The illegal trade in wildlife products was said to be the fourth-biggest after the illicit trade in drugs, humans and counterfeit goods. And international crime syndicates have moved in because, as Gosling wrote, “the risk is low and the profits high”. This is one of the reasons rhino poaching in South Africa has soared by 3 000 percent since 2007.

I travel extensively in the rest of Africa and, sadly, I have witnessed first hand just how widespread wildlife and timber trafficking is. In Mozambique, over a period of 20 years of visiting (I’ve actually been going to Mozambique on and off for 50 years, but only for the last 20 as an adult), I have seen an absolute decimation of the country’s teak and sandveld forests.

On a 1997 visit, I saw swathes of hardwood forests being clear-felled in the Gorongosa area. Rhodesian teak, ebony, mahogany trees, anything that could be sold at a huge profit, was simply taken out. I was told of one operator who had moved into the Marromeu area – which borders the southern banks of the Zambezi, before it enters the Indian Ocean at Chinde – and wiped out a 10km2 stretch of forest armed with fake logging permits.

There is some hope – when I returned to the area in 2010, some of the timber harvesters had started a huge replanting programme, but hardwoods grow slowly, and we passed a depressing number of heavy trucks carting out entire trees, some of them easily a 1m or more in girth, all of them that deep reddish-black colour that is the mark of a hardwood tree.

But it’s not just the big stuff – the rhinos, the elephants, the majestic trees – that is being hammered. On that 1997 visit, near Tete, a young boy rushed up to us with a clutch of birds in his hands for sale, shouting: “Kuku, kuku” (chicken, chicken). The “kukus” were white-crowned lapwings, on sale for 40c each. Their wings and tail feathers had been clipped, and buying them for release into the wild would have condemned them to a swift death. They are classified as “near-threatened”.

In 2010 in Nampula, in the north of Mozambique, rhino horn, ivory, leopard skins and hippo hide and teeth were being openly offered for sale on the streets and in the markets. When we visited Chupanga on the banks of the Zambezi in 1997 – the site of the grave of Mary Livingstone – traders offered us friezes of river scenes carved from hippo teeth, and bemoaned the fact that the hippo were nearly all gone and they could no longer find ivory, because the elephants had almost all been shot.

Sections of Mozambique, like the Gorongosa National Park, and the Niassa Game Reserve, are now relatively well-protected, and game numbers are recovering, but the slaughter during and after Mozambique’s long civil war was horrific.

By the time work started on restoring Gorongosa in January 2008 (mainly financed by US philanthropist Greg Carr), the buffalo herds for which the park had been legendary had been hunted out, and there were just 300 left out of 15 000. There were seven hippo left out of 3 000. Of the 6 000 blue wildebeest, just 30 survived. The park once boasted one of Africa’s biggest populations of Lichtenstein’s hartebeest – more than 2 000. Just 20 survived, while only 200 elephant out of a population of 3 000 remained. All 40 black rhino were shot dead, and only two of the 200-plus lions escaped the poachers.

I recently returned from a month in Zambia, and unless the government there gets a lot tougher on bush-meat hunting, elephant poaching and illegal logging, they run the risk of going down the road from which Mozambique is only now beginning to emerge.

And unless we in South Africa dramatically improve the protection of our rhinos – and make the obvious links between international crime and poaching – our rhino population will disappear like our abalone stocks.

l Tony Weaver has gone fishing. Man Friday will resume next year.