Wildlife crime is 'expensive security challenge'

21 September 2017 - 14:55 By Nomahlubi Jordaan
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African rhino horn. File picture.
African rhino horn. File picture.
Image: Reuben Goldberg

Incidents of rhino poaching have tripled in Southern Africa since 2010‚ which has serious social consequences‚ a new study reveals.

According to the research carried out by ENACT‚ a new EU-supported project that monitors and develops responses to transnational organised crime in Africa‚ poaching endangers lives‚ threatens communities and undermines the local economy.

“The illicit trade in wildlife is a very serious conservation issue‚ but has important social impacts too‚” said ENACT Ciara Aucoin‚ the co author of the research paper titled: Guns‚ poison and horns: Organised Wildlife Crime in Southern Africa.

Between the year 2000 and 2015‚ a total of 1‚035 incidents of poaching were recorded involving one of 10 countries of focus with South Africa hosting the most incidents‚ according to the research.

“Syndicates operate in more than one sector. The trade in wildlife products like rhino horn‚ pangolin and lion bones‚ supports a supply of guns and drugs and contributes to challenges of corruption at multiple levels‚” Aucoin said.

Head of Special Projects at SANParks Johann Jooste said poaching could drive away tourism‚ which is the economic “engine” of areas such as Lowveld in Mpumalanga.

“Pockets within local communities are criminalised; the same communities where many rangers and their families live‚” Jooste said

“While rhino horn is especially lucrative‚ many other wildlife products‚ including elephant ivory‚ abalone and animal pelts are also traded. Poachers are often the most visible part of the criminal networks that straddle the globe‚ but they make up just one part of a worldwide crime ring."

According to ENACT‚ Wildlife crime is the fourth most lucrative organised crime globally and one of the most expensive security challenges facing Southern Africa.

The research also shows that most poaching occurs in South Africa‚ followed by Namibia and Zimbabwe‚ where poachers are increasingly poisoning their prey.

The top non-African destinations for wildlife products are China‚ Hong Kong and Vietnam‚ according to ENACT.

“We know Africa’s wildlife heritage is being destroyed and we need more information on how to stop this‚” said Aucoin.

“Losing this battle is not just about the wildlife. It would also mean we have also lost our ability to combat crime‚ monitor our borders‚ give rural people a stake in the economy‚ and stop the plundering of resources‚’ she added.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime‚ in a report this week‚ accused North Korea of illicit activities in Africa‚ "which run the gamut from trafficking of rhino horn and ivory to gold and tobacco".

While the extent of North Korea’s criminal activities in Africa and the involvement of embassy personnel is unknown‚ the Global Initiative report states it has evidence gleaned in part from the testimony of defectors and government officials in Africa and Asia‚ which suggests criminal activity in Africa "is far more concerted and widespread than previously thought".

"These activities pose a very real threat and one that requires far more attention from law enforcement and intelligence agencies on the continent‚" the organisation said.

North Korean defectors interviewed for the report claimed that significant quantities of tobacco and cigarettes have also been shipped from Africa to North Korea‚ notably from Zimbabwe and Namibia.

One defector‚ who served as a secretary at a DPRK embassy‚ said diplomats frequently took advantage of duty-free allocations to buy cigarettes and alcohol which would then be sold locally or exported‚ according to the report.

The defector was quoted as saying: “It is very common for diplomats to make money from illegal activity. The pay we get is very small and some people in North Korea don’t even earn $1 a month. When we get the opportunity to go abroad‚ we will do anything to earn as much money as possible.”

There are also allegations of North Korean involvement in smuggling duty-free goods and minerals. The most recent cases on record occurred in September and October 2016 when two North Korean nationals travelling on diplomatic passports were separately detained in Ethiopia en route to China. One was arrested in transit from Zimbabwe as he was about to board a flight to Shanghai. Two hundred ivory bangles were allegedly found in his possession. The report said he was released without charge once he was identified as a diplomat.

In May 2015 Mozambican police detained also two men in Maputo. They were travelling in a vehicle registered to the North Korean embassy in Pretoria‚ when they were stopped. Close to $100‚000 in cash and 4.5kg of rhino horn was discovered during a search of the vehicle. The suspects were released after the North Korean ambassador to South Africa intervened‚ according to the Global Initiative report.

The Global Initiative report asserted that North Koreans have been implicated in 18 of at least 29 detected rhino horn and ivory smuggling cases involving diplomats in Africa since 1986.

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