'Musina Mafia' arming poachers

2010-07-09 07:21
A game ranger in the Bubye Valley Conservancy in the south of Zimbabwe which is at the frontline in the fight against poaching. (Julian Rademeyer, Beeld)

A game ranger in the Bubye Valley Conservancy in the south of Zimbabwe which is at the frontline in the fight against poaching. (Julian Rademeyer, Beeld)

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Pretoria - Hunting rifles stolen in South Africa are being fitted with silencers and allegedly smuggled into Zimbabwe by a Musina hunter to be used in poaching rhino.

A Beeld investigation reveals that ruthless South African hunters and safari-operators are plundering Zimbabwe's wildlife stocks and making a killing from illegal hunting and the trade in rhino horn.

A Musina hunter, Johan Roos, has been identified as one of the alleged “masterminds” behind illegal rhino hunting in Zimbabwe. He appears to be a hardened poacher with a string of previous convictions.

Beeld has established that on two separate occasions over the past eight months Roos has been identified as the man supplying hunting rifles to poachers and instructing them to hunt rhino.

One of the hunting rifles, a Winchester .375, was stolen during a violent farm attack in Limpopo province and fitted with a silencer before being given to poachers. Silencers are illegal in Zimbabwe.

A recent report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, and IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, showed that since 2006, 95% of the poaching in Africa has occurred in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The report also showed that the conviction rate for rhino crimes in Zimbabwe is only three percent.

In August last year, Roos, 44, was arrested in Zimbabwe.

Wounded poacher

A poacher had been shot dead and another wounded during a “contact” with game scouts. A silenced .303 rifle was found nearby. Roos was identified by the wounded poacher as the supplier of the weapon.

He was detained near the Beitbridge border and held in custody for three days before suddenly being released.

In another incident earlier this year, Roos was identified by another poacher as having supplied him with the silenced Winchester .375 rifle.

Beeld tried unsuccessfully to contact Roos this week.

A man who answered his phone and described himself as Roos's brother, Pieter, said Roos was “completely innocent” and that his name was “mentioned in Zimbabwe by a black who screwed up”.

Roos' cellphone records show that he was in contact with known poachers. His passport indicated that he had visited the country more than 50 times over a two-and-half year period.

According to Pieter, Roos is a “professional hunter” and is currently on holiday in Swaziland.

Roos has been described by the Beitbridge police commanding officer, Colonel Hosiah Mukombero, as a man “believed to be the brains behind the poaching syndicate that is poaching zebras and smuggling hides to South Africa”.

He is also named in a March 2010 report on the conservation status of rhinos in Zimbabwe which was submitted by the country's government to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Prominent Zimbabwean businessman Charles Davy, a key investor and driving force behind the privately owned Bubye Valley Conservancy, believes recent poaching incidents in southern Zimbabwe are “almost 100% South African-linked”.

'Bad bastards'

“These are bad bastards. It started here towards the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 when we lost 12 rhino.

"We were only semi-jacked up and bloody naïve. The poachers got into us very quickly. We didn't even know they were using silenced rifles. Until I saw the first .303 with a silencer I didn't know it was possible to even muffle or silence a high velocity rifle like a .303.”

The smuggling networks are supported by corrupt police and immigration officials, the collapse of law and order in Zimbabwe and lax controls at the Beitbridge border.

Two brothers, one of them involved in a Limpopo gun shop, are also linked to what investigators loosely refer to as the “Musina mafia” - a term for hunters and businessmen involved in illegal hunting. Their names are known to Beeld.

Blondie Leathem, the manager of Mazunga Safaris which is based in the conservancy, works closely with Davy and says bluntly: “If you want to know rage, see a rhino calf that has been standing next to her decaying mother for three days, in 30 degree heat, trying to suckle.”

Zebra skins

He believes the trade in rhino horn grew from the trade in zebra skins.

“The guys involved in zebra are also the guys involved in rhino. There has been talk of zebra skins going through a very high connection at Beitbridge.

"The sheer quantities are staggering. We are talking about thousands of them over the last couple of years. There are places that had 400 or 500 zebra and today there is not one left.

“Here they've stopped poaching zebra because they realise it has to be hit and run.

“Even with five or six of them skinning it, it takes 20 minutes. They realised it was too high a risk for too low a reward.

“It is just rhino at the moment. It virtually takes five minutes with a knife to remove the horn.”

* Send tip-offs to Media24's investigations team at investigations@media24.com.

For more on Beeld's investigation, tune in to 50/50 at 19:30 on SABC 2 on Monday.   


Read more on:    polokwane  |  zimbabwe  |  southern africa  |  animals
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