Written by: Lisa Johnston for Conservation Action Trust
In the dead of night a group of men hack the meat from a corpse using rusted machetes and pocket knives. Together they’re like a machine systematically tearing flesh from bone, slashing and sawing with blunted instruments. By morning all that’s left for the vultures are stalactites of flesh that cling stubbornly to the ribcage, which gapes like a maw where the heart and lifeblood of the elephant once pulsed.
The slaughter is documented in a series of grisly photos that emerged from the northern Mozambican game reserves of Quirimbas National Park and Niassa National Reserve in October this year. They highlight the routine slaughter of elephants in that area – on a scale that is now being referred to as “industrialised”. Estacios Valoi of the Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Journalism took the images and reported that within 48 hours five elephants had been massacred in the Quirimbas National Park. Their tusks were the first thing to go, axed from the skull and immediately delivered to clients. In this instance the villagers also took the meat, but often the carcases are simply left to rot. In a year long investigation, started in November last year and supported by photographic and documentary evidence, Oxpecker’s Estacios Valoi revealed how a number of administrative, judicial and tax authorities in Cabo Delgado and Niassa provinces were complicit with the poaching syndicates, enabling poachers to gain access to weapons and protected areas and turning a blind eye to ivory and other illegal goods being smuggled through Mozambican ports, airports and borders.
His report reads: “… documents show that, despite the laws, officials are facilitating these crimes. Some sell weapons and ammunition, military uniforms and boots, and others expedite the release of detainees and make evidence disappear. The investigation discovered 15 cases involving armed poachers in the Quirimbas National Park, from between 2009 and 2013, which were forwarded to the criminal investigation police, the prosecuting attorney and the provincial court – with no outcome. Even some poachers who had been brazenly walking around with AK-47s were released.”
The report goes on to tell how a “deposit” of 15 000 meticais can allegedly secure a poachers release from prison and how the district administrator of the Cabo Delgado province, Ancuabe Eusébia Celestino, and the chief secretary of the village of Muaja, Horace Radio, arm poachers with weapons to cull “problem” elephants around the Quirimbas National Park. This despite the fact that they have no authority to kill animals – so called “problem” animals must be dealt with by the provincial department of agriculture.
In September this year environmentalists warned that between 1 500 and 1 800 elephants in northern Mozambique are being poached per year. According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Niassa’s elephant population was reduced from 20 374 in 2009 to less than 13 000 in 2013. In the Quirimbas National Park, the elephant population is now estimated at about 790 elephants. Mozambique is one of Africa’s main transit hubs for the trafficking of ivory to Asian markets – a great deal of which is shipped out through the northern region’s main port, Pemba.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has previously criticised Mozambique for being one of the world’s worst failures in combating poaching. In 2013 the country, together with Vietnam, was ordered to come up with an action plan to substantially increase its efforts against poaching and illegal ivory trade or face tough international trade sanctions.
Although it was late to respond to Cites’ call, Mozambique has thus far managed to escape sanctions through a number of superficial measures. It has passed draft legislation that will, in theory, increase penalties against poachers. Whereas in the past poachers were slapped with a small fine they could now face prison sentences of between eight and 12 years, and fines of between $4 425 and $88 500. The draft, however, still needs to leap the hurdles of bureacracy before it is passed into law. Given Mozambique’s record of poor implementation at a judicial level, it remains to be seen how effective the law will be in terms of actual prosecution. In 2013, for example, Mozambique showed a considerable increase in the number of fines issued for poaching related crimes, yet less than 3% of those fines were ever paid.
In April this year Mozambique signed a memorandum of understanding with South Africa in which the two parties agreed to strengthen relations to enhance the protection of endangered species. Part of the agreement was to adhere to CITES and other relevant international, regional and sub-regional conventions and protocols. The terms remain vague, however, and an implementation agreement has yet to be signed.
Most recently Mozambique forged an agreement with South Africa which supports the development of dedicated anti-poaching operations in and around Limpopo National Park, which joins the northern part of Kruger to form the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park and Conservation Area.
On the surface, Mozambique has recently made a great commitment in the war against poaching, but on the ground nothing has changed and the drafts and agreements serve as mere bluster to hold international sanctions at bay. This is particularly evident in the north of Mozambique where the systematic slaughter of elephants continues, aided and, in cases, instigated by government officials who claim to be protecting them.
Although the bloodied corpses that litter the parks are a world away from conference centres and international conventions where politicians and environmentalists deliberate over the future of threatened species it is exactly these spaces that will determine the future of Africa’s threatened wildlife, but only by forcing change through increased international pressure. The Environmental Investigation Agency and the International Rhino Foundation have petitioned the Obama government to take action against Mozambique under the Pelly amendment – which authorises the US to impose sanctions on any country that contravenes an international conservation agreement. In this case the CITES agreements.
Although it has paid lip service to CITES, Mozambique has effectively cocked a snoot at the international community by dragging its heels and failing to take measures to halt poaching. For starters conviction of a few known key players would go a long way towards sending the right message to corrupt officials and businessmen. In the long run, however, it’s only dedicated policing and law enforcement that can change the situation in the parks. International diplomacy hasn’t worked – while Mozambique dawdles, animals die. It is only through tough measures, such as trade sanctions and increased international pressure that Mozambique will be forced to take action to protect it’s elephants.