Wildlife Poaching Southern Africa
June 2013, Volume 11-3

Many worldwide conservationists are concerned at reports of increased wildlife poaching coming out of Southern, Central and East Africa. And the seeming inability of governments to counter the daily slaughter of elephants, rhinos and many other species of antelope for the bush meat trade.

We will examine some of the reasons why current attempts are failing in many areas. Organized Criminal Syndicates could teach many companies lessons, recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves in Southern, Central and East Africa countries.  Security and intelligence lapses by most countries in these regions gave very little prior warning that Organized Criminal Syndicates had identified massive resources available for the taking. The syndicates are well known for identifying institutional lapses in regions of instability and taking full advantage of widespread corruption in Africa.

Weak wildlife legislation in most countries is a major contributing factor to the success of organized wildlife crime, arrests of perpetrators are few, and convictions even less.  As those involved have a budget to bribe Customs, Police and Security and Wildlife Enforcement officers.  Consequently repeat offenders are able to continue their illicit activities relatively unhindered.
As they have proved time and time again, the intelligence gathering capability of Organized Criminal Syndicates is excellent, and they are known to identify weaknesses in security and plan their operations around those weaknesses. Operational Security in many cases has been weak or non- existent, and in the few cases where Operational Security has been practiced the syndicates have negated it, by recruiting and paying insiders huge sums to provide information on security procedures or impending wildlife enforcement operations. In a few cases when these “insiders” or “moles” have been uncovered, there has been much public criticism of Wildlife Enforcement of “being involved” or “corrupt”. Trust issues then developed amongst many enforcement units and all Intelligence was kept “in house” and not shared amongst partners organizations further stifling successful arrest rates of those involved in poaching.

There are many effective anti-poaching/enforcement units in the region and no one organization or person holds title or copyright on anti-poaching operations. When the increase in rhino poaching surged in 2010 in South Africa, many if not most, anti-poaching units were taken by surprise. Due to lack of intelligence networks, and due to the fact that many had ignored prior warnings issued in 2000 that an increase in rhino poaching was expected in South, Southern Africa.

The Organized Criminal Syndicates had very early on identified a great “resource” in the region, abject poverty and huge numbers of unemployed people; these were recruited to do “their dirty work”, of the syndicates.

Widespread poverty and promises of ready cash mean a constant supply of willing recruits to undertake poaching operations. The fact that these poachers are often wounded or in many cases shot dead does not bother the Organized Criminal Syndicates who recruit them.

Illegal logging is widespread in Southern Africa countries and is controlled and run by Organized Criminal Syndicates, all types of hardwoods are in demand, and even protected species are cut down. Forestry laws where they do exist are openly flouted with undersize logs being cut, and if the cargo is intercepted, cash is carried to bribe forestry inspectors. In some countries forestry inspectors are not paid salaries and are allowed to “take” their salaries from fines paid, which only encourages and promotes corruption.

In many cases when undersize logs are intercepted, before loading on cargo ships, the shipment is confiscated by the inspectors and then placed up for auction. Often the same companies who cut the undersize or protected species bid and buy back the shipment.  In each and every case we have tracked Chinese owned companies that are involved.  And surprising they are allowed by African countries to continue to conduct logging operations in their countries. We have established that many of these logging companies have also being implicated in ivory smuggling and possibly elephant poaching.

Organized Crime is Transnational in nature, and transcends countries borders, so close cooperation with all Southern, Central, East African Police forces and Intelligence Agencies is urgently required.  So is revised legislation on Protected Species, Organized Crime Legislation and Legislation on Asset Forfeiture, for organized criminal activities.  Fines are no deterrent at all, as the profits of organised crime activities are huge, and syndicate members have demonstrated they can pay large fines with ease.  Stricter sentences, longer jail time and seizure of assets of the syndicate are the key to really countering this scourge in Africa.

Many large game reserves have been turned in Intensive Protection Zones, and many units have been re-equipped and re trained up to higher operational standards to meet the daily threat of ex guerrillas recruited to poach elephants and rhinos. Most donors funding has gone into these important initiatives, but little or no funding has gone into deepening intelligence networks, as many donors do not understand the function of building and establishing informer/intelligence networks.
During the Rhodesian Bush war, a Special Forces commander equated intelligence to as valuable as a Battalion of trained soldiers. Intelligence led operations are proactive in nature and can intercept a party of poachers when they enter an area.

One thing is certain, we are in a Protracted Wildlife War, with a very real shortage of funding for training, specialized equipment, for establishing and increasing regional intelligence networks. All Southern, Central and East African countries need to urgently revise outdated wildlife legislation, pass stricter sentences with, accompanying jail time, and introduce asset forfeiture legislation where the proceeds of Organized Crime are forfeited to the respective states. Increased cooperation in the field of law enforcement and intelligence gathering and sharing is essential if any progress in the fight against organized crime syndicates can be made in the region.

If organized crime syndicates could be described as an “Octopus”, then rhino poaching is just one part of a tentacle, and consequently if efforts are focused on that tentacle we will not kill that “Octopus”! What is needed is that all parts of the “Octopus” to be attacked simultaneously then we will
have a chance to kill the “Octopus” that is Organized Crime. Our attacks can be carried out in the field through anti-poaching, at all Ports of Entry, on major transport routes, (Stop and search and  roadblocks). Huge efforts are needed with container searches with trained sniffer dogs, as worldwide increase in container traffic and our inability to search the 420 million containers that transit the globe annually are a major problem. Increased Intelligence gathering and sharing are urgently required. The annual growth of Organized Criminal Syndicates poses a very real threat to global Security.

Author: Kevin Bewick is the Head of Anti-Poaching Intelligence Group Southern Africa