She Hunted History’s Worst Arms Dealers. Now She’s Taking on Rhino Poachers.
Kathi Lynn Austin pulls the trigger of a pistol at a shooting range outside Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. It’s a fall afternoon in 2015, and she’s wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a scarf — her standard uniform when out in the field. She fires the gun with sweaty palms and a thumping heart. The men who invited her to the shooting range are the top players in the very crime syndicate Austin is here to investigate. She is working to gain their trust in hopes of getting information about the illegal pipeline of rifles used in southern Africa’s mass rhino slaughter, which is threatening to wipe the species off the face of earth. Austin pulls the trigger again. There’s lots of recoil, but she makes some decent hits, glad to not make a complete fool of herself.
Over the past 30 years, Austin has chased weapons traffickers and war profiteers around the world, but never once carried a gun. Now, the arms-trafficking expert is not only breaking the cardinal rule of her modus operandi — to never use a gun while collecting evidence — but she also finds herself way out in a rural slum. Accidents do happen at the range, especially with inexperienced shooters.
Austin’s four-year investigation into the rhino slaughter in South Africa will span three continents and take the now-59-year-old on a crisscross journey, back and forth through five countries. Her mission is to track how weapons end up in the hands of poachers, while exposing the kingpins in what she believes to be a transnational crime organization. She’ll do it using investigative skills she developed during decades spent helping take down some of the world’s most notorious arms traffickers.
When concerned members of conservation groups contacted Austin about the rhino slaughter in 2014, she began at what she calls Ground Zero: Kruger National Park, a vast preserve covering 7,523 square miles in South Africa, bordering Zimbabwe to the north and Mozambique to the east, where a well-known smugglers’ hub along the border is known as Crooks Corner. Kruger — where a rhino poacher was killed by an elephant, then eaten by a lion this spring — is the world’s largest rhino sanctuary, but some have started calling it “a butcher’s market.”
Between 2007 and 2014, rhino killings in South Africa spiked more than 9,200 percent, from 13 animals murdered in 2007 to a staggering 1,215 in 2014. The world took notice and resources poured in. While the numbers fell slightly between 2014 and 2017, the danger of extinction is still real. One rhino is killed every eight hours in South Africa. Austin and other experts say that if the killing continues at this rate, the rhino — which has wandered this earth for more than 40 million years and some call “the last dinosaur” — may only have another decade left.
Kathi Lynn Austin kneels beside a stockpile of confiscated rhino horns waiting to be destroyed by the Mozambique conservation authorities in Maputo, Mozambique, 2015. (Photo by Russell Bergh)
“Rhinos are habitual animals. They always poop in the same place, which makes them vulnerable,” Austin explains. “All the poachers have to do is find their droppings and wait.”
At more than $60,000 per pound, rhino horn is one of the most valuable commodities in the world, worth more than both gold and cocaine. Demand is primarily driven by Asian countries, where there is widespread belief that the rhino horn and other parts of the animal provide healing powers. Trafficking in wildlife generates between $7 billion and $23 billion every year, and is a major source of funding for terrorist groups and rogue regimes.
Austin set out to discover the key players in the supply chain, doing what she does best — following the guns.
“Disrupting the supply of weapons used in wildlife crime is a much-needed and often overlooked conservation tool,” she says.
Documenting everything, both for evidence and her own safety, Austin always brings a photographer on her missions. On this investigation, a film team shooting a documentary for a South African TV network tags along, too. And, when undercover work is necessary, she films suspects on a hidden camera sewn into her handbag, the lens disguised behind ornamental studs.
Growing up as the oldest of five siblings in Virginia, Austin had no real experience with weapons, aside from shooting some hunting rifles in the backyard with her brothers as a teenager. She prides herself on never having owned a gun. Yet for nearly 30 years, she has tracked some of the world’s worst war profiteers through some of the most harrowing situations on earth. She has survived crossfire between chimpanzee smugglers and Interpol in Uganda, and smuggled herself into Syria trying to chase down proof of arms trafficking despite a United Nations embargo.
Austin’s love affair with Africa began 30 years ago, when, at the age of 29, she worked with the World Bank in Angola. When her three-week assignment ended, she grabbed her savings and took off, alone, volunteering for various U.N. efforts in the area. By 1994, Austin had earned credibility in powerful circles and watched as Nelson Mandela cast his vote (at a secret location) in South Africa’s first democratic election. She was one of the few foreigners allowed to attend.
That’s also when disturbing reports started coming out of Rwanda. “We were busy celebrating the election when we heard that 10 Belgian peacekeepers had been murdered and the U.N. was packing up and leaving,” Austin says. “There was talk about genocide.”
While embassies were pulling out their diplomats, Austin arrived in a country paralyzed by rape, mutilations and murders. On assignment for the Fund for Peace, Austin wrote a report about how she found Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, one of the architects of the genocide, and others, hiding in a military compound. Armed with only an innocent-looking smile and polite questions, she sat face to face with the mass murderer, who, bedecked in gold jewelry and surrounded by machine-gun-toting guards, admitted his genocidal agenda. “More often than not, these types of people are extremely self-absorbed and wouldn’t even think that something could be turned against them,” she observes. “Few people ever even asked what my standpoint was, and I didn’t volunteer any of that.”
Austin examines the serial number of a recovered rhino-poaching rifle with two South African police officers at the Kruger police vault in White River, South Africa, 2015. (Photo by Russell Bergh)
Later, Austin worked for Human Rights Watch and as an arms-trafficking expert for the U.N. In 2010 she launched her own NGO, the Conflict Awareness Project, with funding from organizations like Oxfam International, WildAid and Open Society Foundations. She takes on high-profile and precedent-setting cases, building dossiers with evidence of criminal acts intended to aid law enforcement in arresting criminals. If they ignore her, she shares her findings with the public.
Among those Austin has helped take down in her long career is Viktor Bout, the notorious weapons trafficker who inspired the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie Lord of War. Bout is said to have made $6 billion transporting and selling weapons and deploying mercenaries to war and conflict zones like Afghanistan, Liberia, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo (often supplying both sides).
Austin had been tracking Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” and his clandestine dealings since the mid 1990s. In 2004, she performed a surprise inspection of 26 of Bout’s planes in the Congo. Backed by U.N. documentation, on a small airstrip in the middle of the jungle, she discovered weapons and false plane registrations in the cargo holds. Only six of the planes had legal flight certifications, and few were even airworthy.
“Six of the planes crashed not long after, with cargo, men and everything,” Austin says. An article she co-wrote with Douglas Farah for The New Republic in 2006 revealed how Bout’s illicit companies operated, prompting U.S. law enforcement to go after him. He was brought down by the DEA and sentenced to 25 years in American federal prison in 2012.
Bout’s methods are comparable to those of many other traffickers and transnational crime organizations. The culprits know that if they create a complex web of company ownership's and arrange transport through several countries, they will be extremely hard to prosecute. It’s part of the game. Perpetrators may never be caught if it’s nearly impossible to get cooperation across multiple jurisdictions in order to pin down their crimes. Oftentimes, powerful politicians also protect them.
Austin believes the rhino slaughter is no different. But unlike her previous cases, many of which have involved the trafficking of military weapons to war zones and conflict areas, the fight to take down rhino poaching has turned Austin’s focus to recreational guns. The international sales of these rifles are often under-regulated, and the rhino syndicates use this to their advantage.
What most people don’t realize, Austin asserts, is that organized crime and terrorist organizations are turning to trafficking of hunting rifles, because of the lax export laws. “It’s the last weapons system that needs to be regulated,” she says.
Crooks Corner, 2015. Anti-poaching officers from the South African National Parks organization show Austin the gaping holes in the border fence between South Africa and Mozambique, where the poachers come in. They bring her to crime scene after crime scene. The beeping of metal detectors cuts through the air as the officers scour big slabs of rhino flesh laid out on the ground. Finding the bullets will tell them what type of gun was used. They are finding more and more .357 and .458 bullets, the ammunition used in powerful hunting rifles that can take down a rhino with a single shot. It’s quick, accurate and deadly. In years past, the most common weapon used in rhino poaching was the AK-47, left over from past wars. But using only one bullet, often with a silencer mounted on the rifle, greatly lowers the risk of detection by anti-poaching forces.
Covering her nose and mouth with her scarf, Austin watches the autopsies. Some of the carcasses are badly decomposed, others still oozing blood. She will never be able to get the smell of dead rhino out of her memory or the leather boots she wears that day.
Austin kneels beside the carcass of a young rhino slain by poachers for its horn at the Wildlife Reserve in Hoedspruit, South Africa, 2019. (Photo by Tuck Gaisford)
Austin finds a solid clue not far from one of the crime scenes: a discarded hunting rifle box. It’s for a Czech-manufactured CZ rifle, made by the company CZUB. This discovery isn’t the only one, an alarming sign that the criminals aren’t even worried they will be found by law enforcement. She asks to see the officers’ incident reports, and they provide her with a binder-full. Then they all head to the confiscation vault.
Stepping into the police vault, she and the officers are crammed in between rows of hunting rifles stacked on metal shelves. Most of them have silencers mounted on the barrels. The pattern is right there — almost all of the rifles are CZs, and many of them are brand new.
Here’s where some of the most tedious — and important — work in her investigation begins. Based on the incident reports and vault-findings, she spends hours creating a database of the serial numbers. Sitting outside of the lodge in Kruger Park, tapping away on her laptop, she sees another pattern take shape. Her diagrams show that many of the rifles are so close in serial numbers that they must have come from the very same shipment, a telltale sign of trafficking.
Over a period of two years, Austin follows the trail of manufacturers, dealers and middlemen, a journey that takes her to Prague, Las Vegas, Lisbon, Mozambique, South Africa and Crooks Corner. Her camera team records conversations with experts, concerned wildlife activists and suspects. When they refuse to be interviewed, she fires up the hidden camera.
Like James Bond getting his briefing and latest gadgets from Q, Austin has to practice a bit first. “I have to remember to point it upward or I will only get shoes,” she says.
She also makes a quick detour to Germany for Europe’s largest recreational weapons trade show, trying to find some of her suspects — arms dealers and middlemen. Most of them dodge her, so she pins down the man in charge of CZ’s Africa sales. He declines talking to her on the record, but as they speak in the cafeteria, there’s a hidden camera underneath the table, on a chair across from him, in Austin’s bag.
While in the cafeteria, Austin is surprised to overhear Russians at a neighboring table negotiating a missiles deal — at a recreational gun show. She records that too.
Once the CZ manufacturers realize she won’t give up, she gets invited for a chat back at the plant in the small city of Uherský Brod, about 185 miles from Prague. She arrives with her list of serial numbers. And they give her the information she needs — the brokers they sold to — claiming they have nothing to hide.
The head of African sales tells her on camera that CZUB would never sell any type of guns overseas that the Czech government doesn’t authorize. “We never do the business we are not allowed to do,” he asserts.
Bullets, boxes and rifles recovered at rhino poaching crime scenes in South Africa and Mozambique.
She shows him the serial numbers, and he says: “We know most weapons found in the Kruger Park were sold to [dealers in] Mozambique. We are not supporting, we are not a part of this way from our client to the poacher.”
They say they sell their weapons in accordance with Czech laws and cannot be responsible for what arms dealers and other middlemen do with them after that transaction. They also say that some of the guns Austin has tracked have been stolen from their clients — a detail they appear to think removes accountability.
Austin isn’t pleased. The gun manufacturer keeps shipping to the Mozambican dealers, despite knowing that 90 to 95 percent of the high-powered hunting rifles found at the rhino crime scenes are theirs. She says CZUB has an ethical if not a legal onus “to conduct due diligence assessments and consider the risk of exports to certain clients.”
She also suspects that there is more to this story, and she is determined to find all of the details about how these guns end up in the hands of rhino poachers.
Her final report tracks how guns made in the Czech Republic, ostensibly for the U.S. market, flow through arms dealers in Portugal and on to gun shops in Mozambique where, she alleges, high-ranking Mozambique government officials and police officers conspire with middlemen to purchase the guns and distribute them to poachers.
“What I call the Rhino Rifle Syndicate in my report,” says Austin, “is aiding and abetting this larger transnational criminal organization, the orchestrators of it all.”
In October 2015, when a source leaks information about a shipment of CZ rifles to Mozambique via Portugal, Austin is in Mozambique, following the links between brokers, middlemen and gun shops. She immediately hops on a plane to Lisbon. There, she delivers a five-hour statement and manages to convince local authorities to hold the shipment based on her findings. The Portuguese authorities say they have enough evidence to confiscate it. All they need is an official confirmation from South Africa. But calls, texts and emails to various top officials within the anti-poaching circuit she has initially been working with go unanswered.
“All it took was one call,” she says. “One call and they would have confiscated the weapons. It was the lowest point of the entire investigation. I felt like I had no allies, that I was alone in all of this.”
She admits that she was close to giving up as she traveled back to Maputo, on the very same flight as the 600-plus kilos of rifles she had tried to stop — her sitting in the cabin, the guns in the cargo hold.
“I felt like everyone had given up on me,” she says. “Every time I think or talk about it, I want to cry.”
At least 16 of the rifles on board were preordered by the main middleman figuring in Austin’s reports. And just as she predicted — and feared — several rifles in that shipment would later be found at rhino crime scenes.
Austin meets with sources to collect documents that would help her identify the owners of guns used to poach rhinos in Matola, Mozambique, 2015. (Photo by Russell Bergh)
Somehow, she managed to regain faith and continue. In June 2018, Austin still hasn’t seen the actions or accountability she has been working for. The documentary, Follow the Guns, which was co-produced with the South African investigative TV series Carte Blanche, airs on South African TV. In addition to the Rhino Rifle Syndicate, the film also points the finger at some of the anti-poaching efforts. Austin suggests that the rhino killings are serial crimes, but the park rangers approach them all as individual ones, ignoring her findings that the majority of the guns come from the same manufacturer, dealers and retailers — the pipeline. Instead of looking at the bigger picture and strangling the supply, they continue what they call a war with the poachers.
“Clearly those fighting to protect rhinos must rethink who the enemy is,” she urges. “The worst criminals are not the ordinary poachers but the shady kingpins behind them.”
Austin criticizes the militarized approach to combating the rhino killings by the South African National Parks. A 2016 photo of anti-poaching officials posing with a newly acquired grenade launcher is part of her report.
“The attitude [that] ‘we have to kill people to save animals’ is never going to work,” she says. “We don’t need to wage a war against these guys, we need to remove the guns, and in order to do that we have to take down these crime syndicates.”
Treating the protection efforts as a war, lying in wait and engaging in firefights with the poachers, creates a need for more guns on both sides.
“And that’s an arms race,” she says.
By the fall of 2018, her report is shaping up, mapping out how big-game hunting rifles get into the hands of poachers in Kruger Park and other southern African game reserves. In October 2018, she provides the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs with her findings, sparking a U.S. criminal investigation. At the beginning of 2019, Mozambique signs the Arms Trade Treaty, aimed at “ensuring transparency, responsibility and accountability in international transfers of conventional arms.” The Mozambique attorney general has opened a case, and the country also has a new national police chief who has pledged “to clean house.” Meanwhile, an investigation in the Czech Republic is on hold and Portugal has been unable to open a case because they lacked cooperation from South Africa. And South African police, Austin says with doubt in her voice, say they have an open investigation. In the U.S., she hopes the key players in her investigation will meet the same fate as Viktor Bout — in a federal court.
The report also offers itemized recommendations as to how to stop the war profiteering and urges international and national law enforcement and the conservancy community to step up efforts to save the rhino.
“I am not saying all, but there are some anti-poaching forces who are also profiteering,” she says. “The only way to win the so-called rhino war is to stop the war part of it, and the profiteering part of it.”
Austin examines anti-poaching incident reports for gun data at a wildlife reserve in Mozambique, 2015. (Photo by Dale Hancock)
Follow the Guns is nominated for best documentary short in the South African Film and Television Awards. Confident that she’s done her best, Austin puts the finishing touches on her report, which was published online in April.
Austin says her goals are that the members of the Rhino Rifle Syndicate will be arrested and prosecuted, and that the world will wake up to the reality that hunting rifles are a tool of organized, violent crimes, including posing a threat to national security, in a way that the world has not yet understood, and that they need to be more tightly regulated.
In her report, she has mapped out the pipeline of manufacturers, arms dealers, middlemen and poaching bosses who systematically supply the poachers with the arms used in the killings, sharing it with law enforcement agencies in all involved countries, and holding a press conference in New York City on April 10. Austin has done everything she can to hold people accountable, including breaking her career-long promise to never carry a gun while investigating a gunrunning crime.
At home in Richmond, Virginia, in early 2019, Austin thinks back to that afternoon at the shooting range outside Maputo. She was desperately trying to figure out how to get close to the most elusive of the key figures in her investigation, the arms dealer she believed was the Viktor Bout of her rhino investigation. He owned the complex, which included both a restaurant and a firing range, and which she knew was also a major money-laundering hub.
“It was spur of the moment while I was at the restaurant complex and thinking of how I could get an opening,” Austin says. “If I got him to take me out on the shooting range, I thought, I may be able to get him to talk.”
While she didn’t have all of the facts yet, she knew who she was dealing with. This man and his many business affiliations (including some at the top levels of the Mozambican government) had been connected to terrorism in Europe and to a major international corruption scandal that led to indictments in the U.S. And, just like Viktor Bout, the Mozambican arms dealer risked losing a lot more than just being accused of hunting-rifle trafficking, should her findings lead to an international investigation.
The top guy ultimately authorized his men to share the information she was looking for in order to document the pipeline: shipping records and clients lists. But she didn’t know that yet when she found herself standing in the midst of his cronies, everyone holding guns.
“The whole time I was thinking how easy it would be for them to say, ‘Whoops, she accidentally got shot,’” she says. “But in this case, the only way to build a report was firing that gun.”