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Guns and rhinos Hunt arms dealers, not poachers

From left, a rifle with a silencer confiscated from a poacher, rhino horns seized from poachers being burnt in Mozambique, and a rhino’s head from which the horn has been hacked off. Pictures courtesy of Carte Blanche and TBG Archive

In September 2014, I travelled to an air force base on the outskirts of Pretoria to attend the biennial Africa Aerospace and Defence expo, Africa’s biggest arms show and South Africa’s top-grossing event. A side theme of the arms trade fair was antipoaching efforts. I was there first to see for myself the cutting-edge weaponry and technology that was being marketed by the world’s leading arms companies for use in Africa’s so-called “poaching wars”, and second, to meet rhino protectors serving on the frontlines so I could learn about the poachers’ guns.

As I made my way through hangar-sized exhibition halls and cavernous show floors, sales representatives were keen to point out which of the military-grade armaments and dazzling technology products on display best suited antipoaching operations. Beyond the usual firepower, I was introduced to the world’s most advanced drones with briefcase-sized dataprocessing systems; sophisticated electronic and infrared detection equipment; and aircraft specially adapted for secret surveillance of wildlife range areas.

Among the trade show’s countless exhibits of military hardware, I discovered private military companies out in full force. They too were hoping to cash in on the antipoaching industry growth spurt. The promotional websites and brochures of some suggested that while the firm might have sprung up nearly overnight, its staff had military experience in places like Afghanistan and Iraq or during South Africa’s apartheid wars.

These private companies advertised everything from the deployment of combat-style security forces to intelligence-gathering services to training aimed at turning rangers and dogs into battle-ready forces prepared to kill any would-be poachers on sight.

With attractions for the whole family, the event could not have done more to signify the growing trend towards the militarisation of conservation in the public eye. Sunglass-wearing ranger dogs jumping from helicopters in a demonstration of an antipoaching operation entertained parents as much as their kids. Schoolchildren were only too eager to line up and pay for the opportunity to place their rainbow-painted handprints on the exterior of a tank in a show of antipoaching solidarity.

The trade show certainly proved to me that a military-style arms race with the rhino-poaching syndicates was in full swing.

The use of military assets and strategies on behalf of conservation efforts is not new. Modern, militarised forms of antipoaching stretch back to the 1970s and 1980s when rhinos and elephants last faced wholesale slaughter. The most recent chapter in South Africa’s militarisation of conservation began about six years ago in response to the uptick in rhino carnage that exploded in the Kruger National Park.

Armed intervention focused on guarding against incursions and stopping poachers is a fairly common fall-back position. However, the costly entrenchment of the military option at the expense of addressing wider political, security and sustainable development issues may ultimately doom the rhino species.

Since poachers are merely replaceable foot soldiers, “whack a mole” approaches treat only the symptoms. The motives of poachers are diverse and complex, a reality that the militarised spin in popular media tends to obscure and dehumanise.

Driven by poverty

Many poachers are driven by poverty. A great number have found themselves vulnerable to coercion by organised wildlife traffickers in league with corrupt leaders and officials. Others are lashing out at policies banning them from age-old subsistence hunting grounds to make room for sport hunters, safari operators and wealthy foreign tourists.

More antipoaching firepower may result in more interdictions or poachers being killed, but approaches designed to tackle only poachers skew solutions in the wrong direction. The real problem is a demanddriven, globalised black-market trade fuelled by powerful transnational crime organisations, which militarised antipoaching initiatives alone are incapable of solving.

Beyond incorporating reactive antipoaching strategies long in use, this modern militarised era has been boosted by innovative trends that continue to rise in popularity. Chief among them are the use of emerging technologies, the deployment of foreign forces, a hefty reliance on private security contractors and the transformation of conservancies into quasimilitarised protection zones with all sorts of new bells and whistles.

During three years of frontline research on the rhino-poaching crisis, I found that these new assets reveal as much about what is being tried as about what is missing to protect both vulnerable rhinos and humans from the twin dangers of industrial-scale poaching and wildlife crime.

Rhino poaching is no longer perceived exclusively as a conservation issue. Over the past decade, wildlife crime has steadily climbed the rungs as a global threat. In Africa and elsewhere, this lucrative scourge — with an estimated annual value of between $7-billion and $23-billion (between R94-billion and R309-billion) — has fuelled corruption, inflamed conflict and undermined the rule of law.

Although the crime typically starts with the poaching of rhinos, the villains responsible for the illegal supply chains and trafficking of horn are transnational criminal organisations, more commonly called “syndicates”.

For this reason, conflating conservation and modern warfare strategies without due attention to law-enforcement tools does little more than buy time, if that, for heavily endangered rhino populations.

Even well-disposed military antipoaching operations have their limitations when trying to outgun poachers more familiar with the terrain.

In nearly every conflict I have covered over 25 years, I have found corrupt forces using the cover of militarised operations to pillage what is within easy reach. And then there’s the problem of military-grade weaponry ending up in the wrong hands, stoking more conflict and more poaching.

Behind the tourist picture of Kruger National Park is a shadow world. Besides the ugly business of poaching, its landscape is fraught with an arms race between the world’s most dangerous trafficking syndicates and the forces arrayed against them.

This shadow world contains a fortress termed an “intensive protection zone” where rhinos are guarded with more robust firepower and military resources than in outlying areas. The park’s recent decision to deploy grenade launchers where hundreds of thousands of visitors and wildlife herds roam together is but one example of a desperate measure for desperate times.

Rangers serving on the frontlines are at greatest personal risk as a result of wildlife agencies militarising the conflict with poachers. Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa minced no words when she stated on World Ranger Day in July 2017 that almost all South Africa’s ranger corps had been converted to antipoaching units.

After a rhino has been shot, poachers use crude instruments such as this axe to chop out the horn leaving a hole in the rhino's face; a ghastly site!

Commercial poachers have followed suit, with better equipment and more violent tactics. The cycles of violence have bled donors and state treasuries while putting more rangers, poachers and animals — mostly rhinos — in the crossfire. In the dead of night, the hunters often cannot be distinguished from the hunted, which is why so many from national park forces in South Africa have died from “friendly fire”.

Almost my entire professional career has focused on the role that guns play in armed conflicts. I have made it my mission to look at the weapons used by both sides before proposing solutions to enhance security. Which brings me back to my second goal in attending Africa’s largest arms trade show. I had every reason to believe I would learn details about the poachers’ guns from the top-notch antipoaching agencies that were present.

Gun and ammunition supply chains

I was mistaken. There was hardly even tacit recognition of the need to tackle the gun and ammunition supply chains that are a linchpin in the rhino syndicates’ vast criminal conspiracy. Caught up as they are in the day-to-day battle against the foot soldiers, antipoaching forces tend to be reactive rather than preventive. They seldom build up the expertise and trade-craft — or have the mandate — to proficiently tackle highly organised crime machines, let alone their weapon sources.

A well-known approach for uncovering criminal organisations is to “follow the guns”. This can be done readily with crime scene evidence at hand, but is overlooked by the conservation community.

Tonight, I join forces with Carte Blanche to bring audiences an extraordinary investigation trailing the rhino poachers’ guns. I built dossiers against some of the biggest traffickers in the world — like the convicted Russian death merchant Viktor Bout — and more recently trained my sights on the underworld of transnational arms merchants aiding and abetting the illegal rhino horn trade.

The real problem is a demand-driven, globalised black-market trade fuelled by powerful transnational crime organisations.

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