There are signs that Chinese crime syndicates have been infiltrating Namibia for a number of years and arming themselves with information about Namibia's rhino population, an environment specialist claims.
In an interview with The Namibian last week, Mike Knight, chairman of the IUCN SSC African Rhino Specialist Group, an organisation reporting directly to CITES, said that the recent arrests of four Chinese nationals in possession of rhino horns are a strong indication of international crime syndicates being active in Namibia.
Knight pointed out that the involvement of "foreign Asian nationals is very worrying as it indicates the possible involvement of transnational organised crime in these poaching incidents".
Knight added that if Chinese crime syndicates are behind the recent rhino horn smuggling, this is "troublesome" for Namibia's government, as these international syndicates are well organised, well funded and have the "ability to adapt to changing circumstances making it difficult for national law enforcement officers to counteract".
He added that it is critical for Namibian law enforcement to "nip this in the bud" as quickly as possible. He noted that it is important for authorities not only to arrest the perpetrators on the ground, but also to focus on the "important middlemen, the buyers and organisers that make these networks function".
Knight added that taking the recent rhino crime incidents in Namibia into account, it is likely that the poaching incidents "were in all probability, carried out with the support from locals ... ".
He said that well-funded Chinese crime syndicates do not just appear out of nowhere, so it is more than probable that they have been laying the groundwork in Namibia for some time now.
Knight pointed out that these syndicates would have focused in recent years on building networks in order to "get information on rhino populations and contacts on the ground".
He explained that it is important for Namibia to prevent the recent poaching incidents from growing into a full-blown poaching crisis, as it did in South Africa.
Knight said Namibia's response has to focus on "breaking or disrupting the organised criminal networks through proactive use of intelligence".
He said that this would require diligent and well-organised co-operation between various government departments, including the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), police, customs and revenue. Furthermore, active cooperation with neighbouring countries is advisable.
He added that it is important for Namibia to engage their Chinese partners directly to spread the message that "they do not condone this illegal activity" by the Chinese nationals in Namibia.
"This is all about the awareness side of the anti-poaching activities," Knight said.
He said it remains important to get public opinion and support to be vigilant and pool resources to make it difficult for organised crime to get their tentacles into the country's unique rhino resources.
Furthermore, Knight said "those caught poaching must be given the maximum sentences possible to stress the abhorrence of this crime and to out the message that Namibia means business with those who want to undertake this form economic crime".
"Namibia has an outstanding conservation record regarding the protecting and growing of its rhino population, and I would hate to see that being challenged by greedy criminals," Knight said.
Repeated calls to the MET for a comment on the rhino situation in Namibia failed, despite several assurances that such a comment would be forthcoming.