Rhino poachers use silencers and smuggled weapons

rhino_poachersBEITBRIDGE - Hunting rifles stolen in South Africa are being fitted with silencers and allegedly smuggled into the country through Beitbridge border post by a Musina hunter. They are then used in poaching rhinos.

South African media have revealed that ruthless South African hunters and safari operators are plundering Zimbabwes wildlife stocks and getting rich from illegal hunting and the trade in rhino horn.

A Musina hunter, Johan Roos, has been identified as one of the alleged masterminds behind illegal rhino hunting in Zimbabwe.

In August last year, Roos (44) was arrested in Beitbridge and detained for three days before he was released and deported.

Roos arrest followed a shooting incident at Mazunga safari area, in which a poacher was shot dead and another wounded during contact with game scouts.

A 303 rifle fitted with a silencer was found at the scene and Roos was identified by the wounded poacher as the supplier of the weapon.

Roos has been described by the officer commanding police in Beitbridge district, Chief Superintendent Hosiah Mukombero, as a man believed to be the brains behind the poaching syndicate that is poaching zebras and smuggling hides to South Africa.

One of the hunting rifles, a Winchester .375, was stolen during a violent farm attack in Limpopo province and fitted with a silencer before being given to poachers, he said.

Silencers are illegal in Zimbabwe.

A recent report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, and IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said that, since 2006, 95 per cent of poaching in Africa had occurred in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The report also said the conviction rate for rhino crimes in Zimbabwe was only three per cent.

In another incident earlier this year, Roos was identified by another poacher as having supplied him with Winchester .375 fitted with a silencer. Roos cellphone records showed he was in contact with known poachers, and his passport indicated that he had visited Zimbabwe more than 50 times over a two-and-half year period.

He is also named in a March 2010 report on the conservation status of rhinos in Zimbabwe, which was submitted by the Government to the Convention on

International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Prominent Zimbabwean businessman Charles Davy, a key investor and driving force behind the privately owned Bubye Valley Conservancy, believes recent poaching incidents in southern Zimbabwe are almost 100 per cent South African-linked.

It started here towards the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 when we lost 12 rhinos. The poachers got into us very quickly. We didnt even know they were using silenced rifles. Until I saw the first .303 with a silencer I didnt know it was possible to even muffle or silence a high velocity rifle like a .303, he said.

It has been alleged that the smuggling networks are supported by corrupt police and immigration officials and lax controls at the Beitbridge border.

Two brothers, one of them involved in a Limpopo gun shop, are also linked to what investigators loosely refer to as the Musina mafia.

Blondie Leathem, the manager of Mazunga Safaris, which is based in the conservancy, works closely with Davy. He said: If you want to know rage, see a rhino calf that has been standing next to her decaying mother for three days, in 30 degree heat, trying to suckle.

He believes the trade in rhino horn grew from the trade in zebra skins.

The guys involved in zebra are also the guys involved in rhino. There has been talk of zebra skins going through a very high connection at Beitbridge. The sheer quantities are staggering. We are talking about thousands of them over the last couple of years. There are places that had 400 or 500 zebra and today there is not one left.

Here (in Beitbridge) they have stopped poaching zebra because they realise it has to be hit and run and even with five or six of them skinning it, it takes 20 minutes. They realised it was too high a risk for too low a reward.

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