Two international journalists who traveled to Mozambique last week to investigate rhino poaching instead found themselves arrested and threatened with torture, rape, and death.
“We were almost certain we were not going to survive,” said Swedish photojournalist Torbjörn Selander, who is in Mozambique with German reporter Bartholomäus Grill on assignment for Der Spiegel magazine.
The reporters went to the village of Mavodze on Feb. 16, hoping to interview a local kingpin who is said to control at least 10 teams of poachers in the region and is wanted by Interpol on suspicion of murder in South Africa. “Other journalists have met the kingpin, but I think someone has put pressure on them, and they are quite nervous now,” Selander said.
Just two days before the journalists arrived in Mavodze, the government of Mozambique pledged to take immediate action to eliminate illegal rhino poaching and trade in rhino horns. It is not known if this influenced the situation last week. The embassy of Mozambique did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Mavodze is in Limpopo National Park, which borders South Africa’s Kruger National Park, home to the world’s largest population of wild rhinos. Poachers frequently cross the unprotected border between the two countries to hunt rhinos and bring the horns back to Mozambique, where they are sold into the international black market.
Although they never set foot on the kingpin’s property, Selander and Gill were met by police and charged with trespassing and invasion of privacy. They were arrested outside his home, separated from each other, driven through the bush, and taken to the local police station, where an angry mob waited for them in the streets. “They tried to kill us,” Selander reported.
Once inside the police station, they found a single policeman and a room filled with poachers from the kingpin’s gangs.
Also present was the kingpin himself, who appeared to be in complete control of the situation.
“He’s sitting beside me,” Selander said. “He said they planned to chain us up in a room and rape us and then kill us.”
Selander asked the commander of the police station for a personal meeting. “It took 45 minutes for the commander to convince the kingpin that we could have that,” he said. “I asked the commander, ‘Are you the commander of the police, or is it this guy?’ ” The reporters later heard that the kingpin controls nearly everything in the village because rhino poaching brings so much money into the impoverished region.
Selander does not blame the people of Mavodze.
“There is nothing else for them,” he said. “I think many poachers would prefer to work than go into Kruger with lions and rangers who will kill them. But they don’t have any other choice.”
Killing a rhino can bring in the equivalent of 15 years’ worth of income, he said—something that is tempting when the people have no native rhinos and therefore no connection to the animals. “If I was a villager there and I had children and they were starving…I would do the same to get my kids to survive,” Selander said.
Although they did not expect what happened to them, Selander and Grill had an emergency plan in place. After their arrest, they made calls to the Swedish, German, and American embassies, which intervened and got them released before the end of the day. “The embassies jumped in, and they saved us,” Selander said. “If I hadn’t had an emergency plan before we went in, you wouldn’t be talking to me because I would be dead.”
Their ordeal is not over, however.
Grill and Selander await trial and cannot leave Mozambique until the case is resolved. They are hoping to move the planned tribunal out of Mavodze to the capital city of Maputo, where they expect they’d be treated more fairly. That tribunal is scheduled for Monday.
Several organizations have stepped up in support of the duo.
The Committee to Protect Journalists called for Mozambique to drop the charges and ensure that Grill and Selander would remain safe. “Journalistic investigations into rhino poaching and the corruption that sustains it should be welcomed, not punished,” said Sue Valentine, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “If the Mozambican authorities are serious about ending this illegal trade that risks undermining the valuable ecotourism economy in the region, they should target the criminals, not the messengers.”
Selander said they deeply appreciate the support. “If there’s pressure on them, they can’t continue,” he said. “In our case, it’s a matter of life. We will finish our story, but we need to get out of here first.”