By Andrew Malone, Visit www.zwnews.com (2 August 2009)
Playfully butting his handler, Tatenda, a young black rhino, is frisky and mischievous. It is feeding time, and his nostrils are flaring at the scent of food. He munches on treats from human hands, and nuzzles his keepers like a dog. He loves a rough tickle under his chin. But Tatenda is in grave danger. He is just 22 months old, but may not live to see his second birthday. His horns are growing rapidly – and that means a man known as ‘Ngwenya’, The Crocodile, may soon come to call.
This is the locals’ whispered name for Emmerson Mnangagwa, architect of Zimbabwe’s terrifying state security apparatus and a man reputed to ‘devour’ his enemies. At least 25,000 men, women and children have been massacred under his command. But now the self-styled ‘Son of God’, who claims he is accountable to no one, has a new sideline – as godfather of the most powerful ivory cartel in world. And his gang of thugs are making making millions from the secret trade.
In a cast list lifted straight from the pages of a Wilbur Smith novel, the cartel involves corrupt Chinese officials and murderous African politicians, not to mention the colourful front man of an upmarket safari company with close links to the British Royal Family. Dubbed the Crocodile Gang, this cartel – whose existence can be revealed by the Mail today – is behind the ‘industrial-scale slaughter’ of black rhinos, prompting warnings that the species will be hunted to extinction in the region within two years. Money is behind the carnage. And lots of it. As the worldwide ivory ban restricts supply, wealthy Chinese are willing to pay up to Â£250,000 for a single rhino horn. They believe they have magical properties and can cure disease, boost sexual potency and save those ‘possessed by devils’. With a kilo of rhino ivory costing Â£30,000 on the black market, at least 12 of these magnificent creatures are being slaughtered in southern Africa every month.
Twenty years ago, there were tens of thousands of black rhinos. Now there are just 460. And the slaughter is intensifying, fuelled by China’s booming prosperity. Tatenda has already paid a fearful price. Found cowering and soaked in blood beside his mother’s mutilated corpse, he was the only black rhino to survive after the Crocodile Gang struck at a sanctuary for the animals. In the dead of night, the poachers – soldiers from Zimbabwe’s military intelligence service – approached Tatenda’s compound 100 miles north of Harare, the capital. They overwhelmed the security guards – and opened fire with automatic weapons, pouring bullets into the enclosure. Tatenda’s mother, another rhino and her unborn calf died in a hail of lead. Tatenda survived only because the poachers didn’t see his tiny outline in the dark. ‘We still thought he’d die of shock,’ says Judy Travers, who runs the sanctuary. ‘It was tragic. There was blood all over him. I don’t want to talk about the people who were responsible. Let’s stick to the positives and fight to keep Tatenda alive.’
That may prove difficult. For across Zimbabwe, the Crocodile Gang is hard at work. Posing as an overseas buyer of illegal rhino horn, I was given an unprecedented insight into the sheer scale of the operation – and the vast sums involved. After making contact with the ivory cartel through an intermediary, we were instructed to drive 400 miles south-west of Harare and telephone a number using a pre-arranged codeword. There, after more elaborate instructions, we were told to drive to a remote location in Matabeleland, near the border with l'Afrique du Sud et Botswana. As we got close, the intermediary – a well- dressed local ‘entrepreneur’ with links to Zimbabwe’s underworld – grew increasingly agitated. ‘These people are killers,’ he said. Pointing a finger to his head, he said: ‘They can do a hit on you like that and, bang, you’re gone.’ Matabeleland is a bloody region. Three decades ago, it was the target of Mnangagwa’s Operation Gukurahundi (the rain that washes away the chaff), a state-sponsored campaign of torture and murder.
Arriving at the agreed location, I came face to face with one of Mnangagwa’s henchmen. He was a pudgy, dissolute looking character of about 50. He climbed into the back of our car and introduced himself simply as Gerald. Operating with members of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Office (CIO) – the secret service created by Mnangagwa, who is tipped to take over as president when Mugabe dies – Gerald told us he had just returned from a successful hunt. He became animated as he told how he pursued a mature adult rhino for days through the Zimbabwean bush. The rhino was being killed to order: a Chinese buyer had offered to pay Â£3,200 per kilo of rhino horn. ‘It wasn’t easy – there is no cover because it’s winter and the animal kept seeing us by the moonlight and running away,’ he told me. Two months after the order was placed, Gerald and his partner – a member of the CIO – found themselves in the perfect position. Downwind and in good cover, they watched as the rhino approached a watering hole. Gerald’s first shot slammed into the rhino’s lungs. ‘Ah, he was strong,’ he said. ‘I hit him, but he ran off. We chased him.’ Finally, 12 hours later, the men crept up as the wounded animal rested at another watering hole. They fired six times, hitting their target with every shot. Then they used pangas to hack the horns from the animal’s head.
The effort was worth it: the bigger tusk weighed nine kilos; the smaller, two. The ivory netted the men an extraordinary Â£35,000 from the unnamed Chinese buyer. Gerald had sold the horns two days before our meeting. When I told him I would pay an even higher price, his eyes narrowed. He said. ‘I will contact you the next time.’ But Mnangagwa keeps a close eye on his henchmen. After all, as the cartel’s godfather, he wants his cut and deals ruthlessly with treachery. Another poacher accused of not handing over his cut was found dead earlier this month. He had been shot seven times in the face. For months, there have been whispers in Harare about the state’s involvement in the ivory trade. As well as rhino, more than 30,000 elephants have been killed. But this isn’t the work of freelance poachers. The involvement of Mnangagwa – as well as tantalising links to a thriving safari operation set up by Charles Davy, the wealthy father of Prince Harry’s former girlfriend, Chelsy Davy – emerged this month when an over-zealous police officer stopped a Chinese man at a roadblock. The man was carrying six rhino horns, worth a fortune in China. They were dripping with fresh blood. Under questioning by the policeman, the man implicated The Crocodile and Webster Shamu, a close business associate of Davy. Davy and Shamu set up HKK safaris, which offers trophy hunting of animals including elephant and lion, to wealthy foreigners. While almost every other white landowner has been driven from his property by Mugabe’s thugs, Davy, who is married to a former Miss Rhodesia, has prospered.
A friend of Mugabe, he has made an estimated Â£10 million from his big-game hunting business. As well as owning vast tracts of land in Zimbabwe, he has homes in Le Cap, Afrique du Sud et Mozambique. And, according to reports in Zimbabwe’s underground press, his company has also been accused of involvement in the ivory trade, only to be shielded from prosecution by his government contacts. While Prince Harry was dating Chelsy, his ‘colourful past’ alarmed the Royal Family. Harry and Chelsy split up in January – and Davy’s links to Mugabe’s regime and the illegal ivory trade are again under the spotlight. Unfortunately, the policeman who uncovered the ivory haul has vanished – along with his report. Meanwhile, the Chinese national was released – with his ivory – and escorted through Harare International Airport to his plane. It is a common story. Earlier this year, Wu Ming Quan, another Chinese ‘ businessman’, was caught with 500kg of ivory at Harare airport. The tusks were spotted on an X-ray machine at the airport. But the X-ray operator was prevented from confronting Quan by three members of Zimbabwe’s secret police. According to undercover wildlife investigators, the Chinese businessman had paid an additional Â£2,000 for safe passage through the airport. The X-ray operator was arrested and thrown in jail for threatening to bring the crime to light.
Jonny Rodriguez, a Zimbabwean former special forces soldier, is one of the few people brave enough to speak out against this government-sponsored slaughter. Founder of the Zimbabwe Wildlife Task Force, a group that works to save endangered species, he has received countless death threats. ‘These guys are getting away with murder,’ he told me. ‘The killing is escalating. Greed has taken over. I have got a good chance of being killed, but I sleep well at night.’ For a bluff, no-nonsense character, Mr Rodriguez gave a surprising reply when asked if he could ever win his war against the poachers. ‘We all live on borrowed time. We should use it well and leave something behind for our children.’ But Zimbabwe is getting ever closer to China and its hunger for rhino horn. Last week, half a ton of rhino and elephant ivory was found hidden in coffins aboard a plane in Nairobi. The plane had come from Zimbabwe and had stopped in Kenya en route to China. And another ton of ivory was seized in Nairobi two months ago. Again, it was being shipped from Zimbabwe to China. Back at Tatenda’s sanctuary, the little rhino finishes his food. He will be watched by armed guards all night. To reduce the threat further, he is also going to have his horns removed under anaesthetic. But that may not matter. In Zimbabwe, it is now up to the Crocodile Gang whether a whole species lives or dies. And the poachers follow the money.
By Andrew Malone, Visit www.zwnews.com (2 August 2009)