Maputo — Over the past five years the South African authorities have killed 279 Mozambicans involved in the illegal hunting of rhinoceros, according to figures published on Tuesday by the independent daily “O Pais”.
A further 300 Mozambicans were detained for rhino poaching between 2008 and the end of 2012, the paper added, citing official Mozambican and South African sources.
The numbers show that 48 Mozambican poachers were killed in 2008, 62 in 2009, 48 in 2010, 71 in 2011 and 52 in 2012. So far this year (up to 11 February) a further eight Mozambican poachers were shot dead.
The number of Mozambicans detained by the South African forces rose from 10 in 2008, to 22 in 2009, 35 in 2010, 101 in 2011 and 132 in 2012. In 2011 and 2012, the total number of poachers detained, of all nationalities, was 478 – so Mozambicans accounted for almost 50 per cent of all poachers arrested in those two years.
But the number of South African rhinos killed by the poaching gangs has continued to rise alarmingly, from 13 in 2007, to 83 in 2008, 122 in 2009, 333 in 2010, 448 on 2011 and 588 in 2012. At this pace, rhinos are threatened with extinction.
For the Mozambican government the most worrying aspect is the involvement of members of the defence and security forces in the slaughter of rhinos.
One of the Mozambicans shot dead, Gerson Chauque, was a member of the Frontier Guard. Another Frontier Guard turned poacher, Bento Pequenino, was shot in the abdomen on 22 November 2011, and is currently under detention in South Africa.
The most recent shoot-out was on 11 February, when South African forces clashed with a group of eight Mozambican poachers in the Kruger Park and shot seven of them dead. The one who survived, named only as Sergio, is currently under medical care at the Massingir District Hospital in Gaza province. He is a member of the Mozambique Armed Forces (FADM).
Another of the dead Mozambican poachers, Silva Ngovene, used a Mauser 458 gun in his poaching forays. At one point the Frontier Guard captured this gun from a group of poachers on the Mozambican side of the border, and deposited it in the Massingir District Police Command. Yet this gun was taken from the command in mid-November last year, and ended up in the hands of a poacher known as Vembane, who was killed by South African troops in the Kruger Park on 8 January.
According to “O Pais”, it was the head of operations in the district command who gave the gun to Vembane and to a certain Mahetabanha, a self-proclaimed “prophet”, who “blessed” poachers so that they would not be killed or imprisoned. No doubt Vembane was well known to the Massingir police because he worked in a Massingir bakery, just a few metres from the police command.
“O Pais” also claims that one of the Frontier Guard commanders who did fight against the poaching rings, Fernando Manjate, has recently been relieved of his duties, along with his entire investigating team.
The paper adds that the national commander of the Frontier Guard has declined to speak to its reporters.
The poaching is driven by demand for rhino horn in Asia, particularly Vietnam and China, where prices can reach 65,000 US dollars for a kilo of horn. This means that rhino horn is now more valuable than gold – an ounce of gold sells for about 1,609 dollars, while an ounce of rhino horn is worth over 1,840 dollars.
Such extraordinary sums are paid because charlatans, peddling what they call “traditional Chinese medicine”, claim that rhino horns will cure everything from demonic possession to cancer.
In fact, rhino horns are made of keratin, the same protein found in hair, nails and scales throughout the animal kingdom, including human hair and fingernails. If rhino horn can cure cancer, then so can biting your fingernails.