NAMIBIA’S BIODIVERSITY THREATENED BY EAST ASIAN CRIME SYNDICATES AND LOCAL CRIMINAL GANGS
In Namibia, southwest Africa, Chinese crime syndicates known as Triads and with the help of local crime gangs continue their biodiversity crimes against one of the continent’s most economically successful countries.
In 2018 for example, a group of Chinese nationals reportedly paid individuals in Etosha, northwestern Namibia, to poach rhinos for their precious horns. Conservation organizations in the country were outraged when the perpetrators involved were allowed to leave the country while their Namibian counterparts received reduced sentences and penalties.
“Lots of anger about that among the Namibian conservation organizations…but people in Namibia are loathe to discuss anything about rhinos at all,” says one source on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from the authorities.
“Wildlife crime remains a problem, especially rhino and elephant poaching,” says Willem Odendaal, Project Coordinator/Legal Practitioner - Land, Environment and Development Project Legal Assistance Centre, Windhoek, Namibia.
“Unfortunately the conservation movement including the NGO sector has not managed to come forth with a well-coordinated effort to act decisively against the threats that syndicate networks posed to our wildlife. As part of the LAC’s efforts we have contributed to some media campaigns. But more needs to be done.[Further] efforts are needed to do interregional policing and cooperation.”
Odendaal went on to say that his office is currently working with prosecutors and investors in an advisory capacity. But he admits that quite a bit in the way of public understanding is still needed in order to make authorities realize that wildlife crime is indeed a serious economic crime against Namibia.
The award-winning Namibian investigative journalist John Grobler, however, is speaking out and suspects a government hand in that 2018 poaching incident.
“It is the politicians who own the farms immediately north of Etosha who are sending in the poachers,” says Grobler
Two years earlier, on 21st December 2016, the situation came to a head. The abuse of the country’s biodiversity and wildlife had become so widespread and rampant that Dr. Chris Brown, CEO Namibian Chamber of Environment, wrote a scathing public letter of complaint and sent it to Xin Shunkang, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ambassador in Windhoek, which exposed the extent of Chinese involvement in the country’s natural resource plunder.
In the letter, which was supported by prominent Namibia-based conservation bodies such as Save The Rhino Trust, Desert Elephant Conservation, the Cheetah Conservation Fund amongst dozens of others, Dr. Brown pointed out, in no uncertain terms, that Chinese nationals in the country were deeply involved in the illegal trafficking of rhino horn, elephant ivory and the capture, trade and export of pangolins (a scaly anteater that is currently the most trafficked mammal in the world because of its scales, meat and skin for medicinal and other uses.)
But as Dr. Brown emphasized in his frank communiqué:
“Until the arrival of Chinese nationals in significant numbers in Namibia, commercial wildlife crime was extremely low. As Chinese nationals moved into all regions of Namibia, setting up businesses, networks, acquiring mineral prospecting licenses and offering payment for wildlife products, the incidence of poaching, illegal wildlife capture, collection, killing and export has increased exponentially.”
Dr. Brown further accused Chinese nationals of having been, or continue to be, involved in, and/or are the commercial drivers behind a series of crimes against Namibia’s biodiversity including:the illegal transit through Namibia and attempted export of poached abalone from Cape waters through Namibian ports; the import of Chinese monofilament nets in industrial quantities via Zambia to the north-east of Namibia, which are destroying the fisheries of the Zambezi, Chobe, Kwando and Okavango Rivers; the unsustainable commercialization of fisheries in these north-eastern rivers and wetland systems for export to cities and towns in neighboring countries.
Dr.Brown also noted other crimes against nature in Namibia such as the rise in bush-meat poaching wherever Chinese nationals are working on road construction and other infrastructure projects. This has led to the collections and consumption of tortoises, monitor lizards and pythons including protected and endangered species.
Anti-conservation activities by some Chinese national in Namibia are also a danger to the countries (and Southern Africa's major) waterways and fisheries. For example, the imports of Chinese monofilament nets in industrial quantities via Zambia to the north-east of Namibia are destroying the fisheries of the Zambezi, Chobe, Kwando and Okavango Rivers. Fisheries in Namibia are already a climate-sensitive sector.
China has been a dedicated ally and friend to Namibia over the years. Relations between the two first blossomed in the 1960s during the country’s War of Independence from South Africa when China provided support to the emerging political party SWAPO. Since then, China’s strategy in Namibia is similar to its approach across sub-Saharan Africa; creating economic ties through trade, development finance and large-scale infrastructure projects.
According to figures from the Namibia’s Home Affairs Ministry, Chinese nationals, who have been attracted to Namibia by public and private sector tenders, now account for around 5% of the country’s population. But in Namibia, and elsewhere in Africa, they have been caught trafficking critically endangered and threatened wildlife species on IUCN’s Red List and CITES-listed critically endangered wildlife.
“Chinese organized criminal entities operate in virtually every African state, especially where there is a sea coast and a mining extractive industry,” writes Dr. Gary Busch in his 2014 paper: CHINESE ORGANIZED CRIME AND AFRICA: The Globalisation of the Chinese Triads and Gangs. “These Chinese criminals aren’t private sector entrepreneurs seeking to earn a quick, if dishonest, buck. They are part of [an] ancient and well-organized criminal groups with a fierce internal discipline.”
Reportedly, there are at least four Triads operating in a number of African countries including Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia. In Africa, they specialize in controlling the export of wildlife products, buying and trading in illegal ivory and rhino horn. Such activities are done with the help of a large network of local Namibians who carry out the actual poaching.
According to the Namibian Chamber of Environment (NCE) website, after receiving the open letter, Qiu Xuejun, who by then had succeeded Xin Shunkang as the PRC’s ambassador to Namibia in December 2017, invited a delegation of representatives from the NCE to meet with him and his delegation at the Chinese Embassy in Windhoek on 4th January 2017 to discuss the matter.
At the meeting, Chinese officials stated that their government was vehemently opposed to all forms of criminal activity by their nationals in Namibia, including wildlife and environmental crimes, and vowed to cooperate in addressing the problems.
One public relations strategy was to organize a series of wildlife trafficking workshops by the PRC embassy in Windhoek, the Namibian capital. These workshops were meant to create awareness among local Chinese nationals in order to reduce ivory trafficking and other wildlife products as well as CITES-listed endangered and threatened wildlife.
In addition, the Chinese business community in Windhoek reportedly donated N $30,000 (around US $2,200) towards tackling wildlife crime (this amount was sniffed at by Dr. Brown in his letter because according to the Environment Chamber’s calculations, wildlife crime costs the country an estimated N $811 million or US $59.5 million) per year.)
In spite of these measures, some observers believe that Dr. Brown’s approach was perhaps not the most effective but did bring the issue out of the closet.
“I am not sure that attacking the Chinese frontally worked, “the culture [is] more subtle than that to have an effect with one letter only," says John Grobler, an award-winning Namibian investigative journalist and a co-founder of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters. “the culture [is] more subtle than that to have an effect ."
His statement contained some errors of fact that undermined its credibility somewhat, but it did have an impact insofar as it hung the rag of shame publicly around all Chinese people heads, which in turn led to people coming to me with information.”
In response, the Namibian government ramped up stop-and-search operations at checkpoints, roadblocks and at random. The Minister for Environment and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta pledged to deport foreign-born poachers:
“We want foreign nationals convicted for poaching deported and never allowed back in the country because we have learned that they are fined and go back to engage in the same thing again.”
But the Namibian government hasn’t stopped there. In June 2017, President Hage Geingob signed the Nature Conservation Amendment Act into law. The Act was meant to halt the rampant poaching of elephants and rhinos. Among other penalties, the Act increased fines for rhino and elephant poachers from the maximum of N $200,000 to N $25 million.
According to the Act, if found illegally with specially protected species, a person will be fined N$10 million-up from the previous N$20,000 and imprisonment of five to ten years.
The Act also increased general penalties from the maximum of N$250 to N$6,000 and imprisonment of three to six months for first time offenders. The same offenders will be fined N$12,000 from the maximum of N$500 and imprisonment of six to 12 months. Fines for the illegal hunting of all protected species were to increase from the maximum of N$4,000 to N$500,000 and imprisonment of four to five years, while for that of all other species was said to increase from the maximum of N$2,000 to N$500,000 and imprisonment of two to five years.
The new Act also empowered Namibia’s Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration to ban entry into Namibia of foreign nationals involved in wildlife crimes related to the possession and dealing in elephant and rhino products, after they serve their prison terms.
It needs to be emphasized that such wildlife crimes and other crimes against nature has numerous negative impacts on people and planet:
On the economic side of things, there is the loss of foreign revenue from eco-tourism. This can lead families destitute with younger male members joining rebel groups in search of cash to feed themselves and their families. Lack of employment in the tourism sector can also lead to increase in poaching.
As we are seeing with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are serious public health concerns. Poaching bushmeat in the Congo River Basin, for example, can lead to epidemic outbreaks (as can international trafficking of live wildlife).Emerging infectious diseases can cross the Darwinian divide and jump from primates to humans (the HIV virus that causes AIDS is said to have jumped from chimps in central Africa to humans and has killed an estimated 35 million people globally and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, was traced by Chinese scientists in 2017 through the intermediary of civet cats to cave-dwelling Horseshoe bats in Yunnan province. The outbreak killed 774 individuals in some 37 countries, with the majority of cases in China).
Biodiversity loss can lead to the disruption of vital ecosystems services to humankind: services such as water purification; food production; oxygen production; waste processing, nutrient cycles, energy production, pollination, providing medicinal resources, and so forth.
Such crimes against nature, perpetuated by Chinese nationals, if they continue on the present scale, will ultimately affect Namibia's socio-economic development in terms of foreign revenue from eco-tourism and scientific research for example- not to mention affecting wildlife and habitats.
“Wildlife crime is indeed affecting communities in Namibia, including ones in Zambezi Region, the 4-O region (Ovamboland), and Kunene Region,” says one source on the condition of anonymity. “The big issue is the loss of high value wild animals like rhinoceros and elephant and lions, all of which are important to the tourism economy and to the biodiversity of the various areas, and affect the incomes of people in communal conservancies.”
The presence of foreign crime networks such as the Triads has the potential of causing political and social instability if the Namibian government does not apply adequate security measures.
“Wildlife crime is only one aspect of the problem,”says Willem Odendaal. “People living in poverty, can easily be persuaded to commit crime. This is the situation we are in at the moment, and Chinese syndicates are exploiting this.”
Increasing corruption has also been blamed for the rise of wildlife crimes by Chinese syndicates in Namibia (even the country’s president Hage Geingob was once accused of corruption for receiving payments of $10,000 USA involving the purchase of Canadian mining company Uramin by French nuclear giant Areva now ORANO).
“The corruption is very visible in especially the lower courts here,” says John Grobler, the award-winning Namibian investigative journalist. “I had a case where the cop testified during a bail hearing for two Chinese smugglers caught with rhino horn that he was offered a NAD $50,000 bribe to drop the charges against one of them, but which evidence was completely ignored by the prosecutor and magistrate in agreeing to bail. That Chinese suspect then promptly skipped bail, forcing the state to withdraw case.”
Namibia is still regarded as one of Africa's least corrupt countries in terms of the Corruption Perceptions Index. However, some commentators see the problem stemming from an entrenched government. Namibia has been under SWAPO majority rule since its independence in 1990. Furthermore, the government has been virtually unchallenged by strong opposition. Consequently, political accountability to the people of Namibia is weak.
Increased Chinese influence in the form of infrastructure projects in Namibia's (as well as in the country’s business and mining sectors) has led to some very dubious deals between government and the Chinese, say commentators.
Some observers say an apparent disunity among conservationists in the country has also contributed to the rise of wildlife crimes. Funding scarcity, prestige, and jealousy within Namibia’s conservation community are seen as the cause. Sadly, such disunity has also lead to a neglect of improving law enforcement and fighting corruption.
Others point to the country’s Community-based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) program and say that it has been falsely portrayed as a success to the international donor community (Namibia's CBNRM program seeks to promote the conservation of biodiversity while simultaneously improving human livelihoods. With the aid of the government and NGOs, Namibians who form conservancies now have legal rights to manage wildlife and benefit from tourism).
“I have evaluated various CBNRM efforts in Namibia, some are quite good, others less so,” says American anthropologist Robert Hitchcock, who has worked in Namibia for several decades. “I would say that it is a good idea, and the key issues are ensuring that the communities actually get the benefits they are supposed to, and that the conservancy officers and CBNRM management committees don't capture a lot of the funds for themselves.”
“My own work has mainly been on the San [traditional hunter/gatherers of the Kalahari] CBNRM programs, which actually have been reasonably good. Most of the funds to the communities come from safari hunting, which is another huge issue.”
However, whatever weaknesses of the CBNRM program, some observers say have been blatantly exposed by the rise of the country’s poaching and wildlife trafficking crisis and needs a serious overhaul.
“Another example is the pro hunting lobbyists in our conservation debates. Alternative debates to the pro hunting debate are a near taboo subject in many circles. There's isn’t a lot of room to show discontent with how conservation issues are dealt with unfortunately,” says another anonymous source in Namibia.
Namibia is home to the desert-adapted subspecies of black rhino, known as the South western black rhino (Diceros bicornis bicornis). In a document submitted to the CITES Conference of the Parties at Johannesburg in September 2016, the African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC commented that “the geographical drift in poaching to Namibia over the last two years is worrying”, and recommended that the nation be added to the CITES’ Rhino Working Group’s list of countries of “priority concern” as a result of this trend.
Poaching for rhino horn in Namibia has increased over the past decade as poaching activities has spilled over from neighboring South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the epicenter of rhino poaching in sub-Saharan Africa.
In December 2012, the first rhino was poached in Namibia in the Palmwag nature reserve area in the north of the country. Two years later, sixty-one rhinos were illegally poached and in 2015, ninety-one rhinos fell victim at the hands of poachers. Unofficial figures for 2016 suggest that sixty-three rhinos were killed, a reduction on the previous year but high enough to threaten the growth of Namibia’s rhino population. Elephant poaching is on the increase.
During this time, the Namibian government responded by creating a new Wildlife Crime Directorate and specialist anti-poaching school. Government anti-poaching teams have also, for the first time, invoked the Criminal Procedures Act, which allows their teams to fire in self-defense against poachers.