Asyndicate of criminals has found a lucrative business in stealing lions and cheetahs and selling them to South African game ranchers along the Botswana-South African border. A week long journey across the Kgalagadi South, Northern Cape and North Western Provinces of South Africa by the Mmegi team uncovered operations by organised crime syndicates in predator smuggling that has posed a serious threat to the sustainable protection of wildlife in the region and livelihoods of the populace which depends on tourist activities.
The team got on the trail of the criminal syndicates, uncovering a complex web of characters from simple men looking for a piece job, ill-equipped law enforcement officers to wealthy game ranch owners looking for a good catch to sustain their business. The trade involves live predators, skins, trophies and game meat.
The big cats are smuggled to feed the ‘canned hunting’ industry in South Africa that pays attractive prices.The criminal syndicates operate in the semi-desert areas of Tsabong near Taylor’s Pan, Maralaleng, Omaweneno, Draaihoek, Werda and Kolonkwaneng, near Moorcroft’s Pan. Moorcroft’s Pan is where the Tsabong – Middlepits road descends into the Molopo valley which marks the borderline between Botswana and South Africa.
Investigations have revealed that McCarthy’s Rust, 26 kilometres east of Tsabong, Werda, Bray also known as Hereford, Derdepoort at Sikwane in the Kgatleng District and Stockpoort are the favoured border crossing points for smuggling. Failure to address the live big cat smuggling by the authorities in Botswana and South Africa could have devastating consequences for tourism. Some South African farmers, a number of whom have farms in Botswana are implicated in the smuggling. A number of them are alleged to have been illegally allocated farms near Tsabong at the Khweyane communal grazing zone. Mmegi has so far confirmed that some of these ranch owners (names known) are linked to the smuggling operations.
Unmasking the syndicates
South African-based natural conservation specialist, Saral van der Merwe, says he discovered the criminal syndicates while researching for his forthcoming thesis on lion and livestock interactions in the Kgalagadi South region. The process is simple. A South African client, often a game farmer, contacts an individual in Botswana and places an order. The contact gets a team of men together who then venture into the wild to capture animals. The client crosses into Botswana, collects the animal and exits through un-gazetted points. Sometimes, the hired poachers take the animal to the border for the client. The game rancher may breed the animal, sell it or keep it in the ranch for trophy hunters.
People like Bonang Lehuma (not real name) used to work at the lower end of the smuggling chain. His job was to capture lions and cheetahs. “In 2000, I met with a man called Dicks (not real name) who introduced and recruited me in this business of lion and cheetah smuggling,” he narrates. He says that a South African client of his called Hennie (full names known to Mmegi) wanted two live cheetahs at P10,000 each. “I did the math, I get paid around P2,000 or less every month when I build houses but this is more of a jackpot,” he says.
Another young man, Toro Letsomo (not real name) told Mmegi that he knows about these operations and the people involved. He said after several failures he joined the smuggling syndicate. “Dicks used to come with a lot of money and buy us drinks, I strongly desired to be part of them (smuggling group) and make money too but they would promise to take me along the next time. Unfortunately, they always dodged me and I don’t know why, and it hurt me. But, there was nothing I could do because I knew nothing about the trade so I could not go alone,” Letsomo said at his farm. Ultimately, he joined the poachers to enjoy the benefits.
Getting information about the crime is made doubly difficult by the fact that gaining access to the ranchers is not easy. It is a dangerous mission to attempt gaining access to ranches and farms of suspected South African farmers along the McCarthy’s Rust border. Across the border in South Africa, there is a ranch called Springbok Pan.It is suspected that it is a hide-out for the smugglers and their loot. Upon entering the ranch, the owners who declined to talk to the Mmegi team about the smuggling, were so hostile and appeared quite racist. This seems a no go area for a black man. But the game rancher remains central to the trade. In fact, he offers a market. A resident of Khweyane near Tsabong, Richard White, a natural conservationist, told Mmegi that the criminals use vehicles and other equipment supplied by the South Africans in their operations. “Drugs are used to capture the animals. Some are believed to be M99, fentanyl, zolatyl, ropan and ketamine hydrochloride,” White explained.
He said the main sphere of operations is along the Kgalagadi Wildlife Management Area and the southern part of the Botswana portion of the Trans-Frontier Park, especially Mabuasehube Game Reserve. He said the criminals put water troughs in strategic places to attract the animals and then follow lactating females back to their cubs, which they catch for smuggling.
“The cubs are sold for an average of R7,500 each,” White said.He explained that the business of predator smuggling is driven by two factors; price differences between the two countries and the ‘no questions asked’ terms of the trade. Many of the animals traded are stolen in Botswana and then smuggled into South Africa, sometimes across the border unnoticed by the customs officials. The South African police will not do anything even if they are aware of the hidden ‘goods’.
The war against poaching
Kgalagadi District police boss, Senior Superintendent Masilo Motswiri has said they have recorded stock theft and predator smuggling cases and some Batswana have been arraigned and prosecuted for the crime. Court records show that Mpegang White Tebele, Mpontshang Leshema, Keobonye Ntau Keseneilwe and Dinkwetse Osenoneng have been charged for hunting and capturing animals without a licence. The men were caught in a joint operation by security forces near McCarthy Rust border post in 2012. Their names have been featuring frequently in reports as smuggling syndicate members. They were ambushed near Tsabong at Magobeng Ranch with two cheetahs after a sting operation by the police. Previously, trailing the syndicate members had not borne fruit and that is why the police decided to lure them into an ambush by pretending to be customers. The Botswana Defence Force soldiers and wildlife rangers were roped into the plot that led to the capture of the men at night near the border where they unsuspectingly took two cheetahs to a ‘client’ who happened to be a police officer backed by a contingent of armed security men hiding in the bushes.
The two male cheetahs are currently kept at Sir Seretse Khama Barracks. The court documents reveal that in March, three of the smugglers confessed, pleaded guilty to the crime and were slapped with a P5,000 fine each.In 2008, Tebele and alleged syndicate members, Fampe Gaotsogelwe, Kealeboga Masetlane, Joba Tebele and Kganenang ‘Swartpiet’ Dipheko faced charges of illegal hunting and capturing four eland calves, three gemsbok and two springboks but were eventually acquitted last year. Court records show that a certain Ryan ‘Gert’ Stoltz, a South African, was implicated in the matter. It is alleged that he drove over the Botswana and South Africa border fence during a chase by the police and disappeared into the night. Stoltz is still at large and among the most wanted people by Tsabong police.
Middlepits police station commander, Superintendent Moses Chibamo told Mmegi that they are aware of the problem of smuggling of live animals but the perpetrators are very smart and have not been caught yet. He said the criminals monitor the police and know the movements of security officers. “We are aware of the problem but they are difficult to catch. Sometimes we follow motor tracks and when we get to the house, the wheels would have been changed or cars would be on top of bricks. They (vehicle owners) would deny any wrongdoing and say their cars do not move,” Chibamo said.
A poverty and poaching story
This is really a poverty story if anything. Poverty is everywhere in Kgalagadi South, one of the poorest regions in the country. It is in the mud huts, the dusty roads and the sullen looks on the residents’ faces. The poverty trap of Kgalagadi South is linked to the land question. Kgalagadi South is more like a corridor.
The communal area where the farmers eke out a living through rearing animals is a thin corridor beyond which game farms stretch to the south and the big expanse of the Kgalagadi Trans-Frontier Park to the north. The soil is not good for anything else, the layout of the land makes it impossible to raise animals. All the villages and towns stretching from Maralaleng, Bray, Omaweneno, Werda, Draaihoek, Tsabong, Middlepits, and Bokspits to Struizendam are located between wildlife sanctuaries or foreign land. There is the Mabuasehube-Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that spreads to the west of Tsabong to Nossop River which marks the border between Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. To the south is the border between Botswana and South Africa. The Molopo River winds all the way to the south west bottom corner of Botswana meeting with Nossop River that flows from Namibia.
Due to these geographical features, the farmers are running out of grazing land. Around a 100km radius, heading south to the villages from the Mabuasehube park boundary, wild animals dominate the freehold land. The residents have expressed concern that they cannot compete for the land with the animals since predators kill their livestock. The area is inhabitable since it is too far from facilities such as schools and hospitals.
The secluded region, especially down south to Middlepits is underdeveloped with many abandoned businesses. The mud huts are falling to pieces and showing cracks probably from the severe sand storms. The water is muddy and salty and a decent meal is difficult to get. A Middlepits police officer (name withheld) told Mmegi that people poach game for food but due to poverty, the activity has been elevated into a commercial venture because of the readily available and lucrative market in South Africa. “They dominantly poach eland and gemsbok for meat but in Tsabong, they kill for sale and profit. Tota ba ke batho ba nama, ba bolaela go ja!” he said.
Assistant Superintendent, Kabelano Tebogo of Tsabong police said that South African farmers have emerged as one of the major threats to the residents’ livelihood. The South Africans own ranches that share boundaries with the international border. Another problem is inaccessibility of the ranches and rogue law enforcement officers. “So when livestock grazes too far and end up on the South African side of the border, they sometimes disappear for good since they will be in a foreign land and private property at the same time,” Tebogo explains.He said that, if by luck the animals are returned, it would be after a very long time through a tiring process and exchange of a lot of money.
“Which leads to Batswana giving up on the battle of getting their livestock back since it costs them twice as much as the animal itself. The hassle usually comes from the fact that some South African farmers have ranches that share the boundary fences with the borderline,” Tebogo said. He accused South African police in Kuruman of unreliability and refusing to cooperate with their Botswana counterparts.”Their procedure of sending back livestock entails going back to Kuruman headquarters, which is close to 300km, to request for a warrant to enter the private property,” Tebogo said. By the time a warrant is issued, the farmer may have actually moved the stray animal(s) to a different place.
Towards a lasting solution
South African-based natural conservation specialist, Saral van der Merwe, says he attempted to alert the authorities to the illegal smuggling of live animals in vain. He wrote a letter to the Minister of Environment in South Africa pleading with him to address the smuggling. His letter to the Shadow Minister of Agriculture in South Africa also got no response. He said he is in contact with informants, one of them a criminologist and expert in cross border wildlife smuggling.
He said his attempts to stop the lion bone exports from South Africa have been ignored. Kgosi David Toto of Kgalagadi informed Mmegi that last month, they met with the police, soldiers and wildlife officials and agreed to address the problem of smuggling Botswana wild animals to South Africa. “We had suggested that there should be whistle-blowers. We suggested that the community should join the fight as well and requested to be given resources such as cars and more manpower to help combat this,” Toto said.When President Ian Khama visited Tsabong recently, he assured residents that a delegation would be sent to the district to address the smuggling problem.