| John Grobler & Sinikka Tarvainen |
SESFONTEIN, Namibia (dpa) – Namibia, once considered to be a safe haven for some of the world’s last black rhinoceroses, has seen more and more bloody carcasses of the large beasts with their horns cut off, and animal rights activists are blaming Chinese smugglers.
An estimated 1,700 black rhinos – 40 per cent of the surviving population worldwide – live in Namibia, but experts fear that poaching, driven by demand in Asia, could deal a fatal blow to the species.
“There is increasing evidence of Chinese involvement in the wildlife trade in Africa,” says Tom Milliken from the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
Rhino horns fetch tens of thousands of dollars in Asia, where they are used in traditional medicine or to carve objects serving as status symbols.
“Vietnam has been the main destination for rhino horn, but demand for it is growing in China as well,” Milliken said.
Official figures have shown that at least 27 black rhinos were poached in Namibia by the end of 2014, and there are strong suspicions of Chinese involvement in the poaching increase: Four Chinese citizens are currently awaiting trial in the southern African country for rhino-horn smuggling, while another is under investigation.
Conservationist Garth Owen-Smith says Namibia has a special responsibility for black rhinos, which are classified as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Some of Namibia’s rhinos live in the country’s Etosha Game Park or on private farms. Others live in north-western Kunene, a rugged semi-desert measuring 115,000 square kilometres that experts say is the world’s largest habitat of black rhinos outside areas under conservation.
Africa’s black rhino population plummeted by 96 per cent between 1970 and 1992, the World Wildlife Fund says. By the early 1980s, fewer than 40 black rhinos remained scattered around waterholes in the Kunene mountains.
Closer monitoring and local community involvement helped to raise their numbers, and virtually no poaching was reported since 1993 – until it suddenly started again in 2012.
The poaching began to attract more attention a year ago when three Chinese nationals were arrested at Namibia’s Windhoek airport with 14 rhino horns in their luggage.
The three men, who came from China’s eastern Jiangsu province, testified that they were paid to take the suitcases to China without knowing what was inside.
DNA tests showed that 13 out of the 14 horns originated from Kunene black rhino, according to Bernd Brell from Save The Rhino Trust.
A fourth Chinese national was also arrested for possession of rhino horn last year and freed on bail. The four are awaiting trial in Namibia.
A Chinese link to black rhino poaching first emerged with the arrest of Namibian poacher Tjihuure Tjiumba in connection with the discovery of a rhino carcass in December 2012.
Tjiumba, who was jailed for seven years, implicated businessman Efraim Muanyangapo, for whom he had worked as a cattle herder and who also happened to be the partner of Chinese entrepreneur Paul Hoa.
Muanyangapo and Hoa joined forces in a copper mine venture, police say, and rhino carcasses started turning up thereafter in Kunene in 2013 and 2014. Police are still investigating their activities.
Muanyangapo has denied wrongdoing, while Hoa has left Namibia and did not respond to requests for comment from dpa.
The Chinese embassy in Windhoek declined to comment, saying it had not monitored rhino horn cases involving Chinese citizens.
Chinese nationals have been detained in connection with rhino horn or ivory smuggling in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Rwanda as well, according to Milliken and media reports.
Some of the Chinese may act as middlemen who help to take rhino horn to other Asian countries, working together with Vietnamese crime syndicates, Milliken said.
The economic impact of the Asian rhino horn trade on wildlife tourism is cause for concern in Namibia, where the tourism industry makes up nearly 15 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
“No more rhinos, no more tourism,” senior tourism official Sem Shikongo said. “We know we have got a problem.”
Windhoek has announced new measures against poachers, including stiffer sentences, more patrols and increased cooperation with neighbouring countries.
It can, however, be difficult to obtain testimonies from witnesses who may receive threats, said prosecutor Obed Musondeka, who deals with poaching cases.
“We need a witness protection programme for people who often put their own lives at risk,” he said. Another problem is the willingness of some police and officials to accept bribes.
“We can come up with strategies to fight environmental crime, but the problem is corruption,” Musondeka said.