Mozambique: More mud in the murky “rhino-horn” underworld


My recent blog about potential illicit trade and messy politics in Mozambique didn’t open just my eyes, but a somewhat veritable ‘can-of-worms’.

With almost 800 unique page views in under 5 days – of which around 250 were in the first 24 hours – I’ve been quite taken by the 50-60 people who contacted me privately, with about a third of them sharing some stories or suspicions over related matters.

Most of these “informants” who mailed me, and with whom I spoke on the phone, chose to remain anonymous and used random email addresses and “private number” mobiles.  Each bit of feedback seemed interesting, or possible, on its own, but when one hears an almost identical story/theory from two or three totally unconnected people, then some substance starts to evolve.

This blog – quite a lengthy read here – is a brief record of many of these many detailed and deeply concerning allegations that I’ve been party to receiving. In fact, the situation is far more bleak than I initially imagined. From the perspective of where I sit, anyway.

In case you’ve not read “Mozambique: Internal politics and the illicit trade of rhino horn, ivory and Marange diamonds” – 10 April 2013 – here’s the link:

My hope through this post is that more readers might be able to join a few more dots in a gloomy picture emerging and come forward with bits of possibly related knowledge or experience they have.

One of the spin-offs has been the privilege of a few (seemingly) trusted and well-informed “security” folk making comms with me, so we’re setting up a little “intel” research network to collate information and add it to their database, in the hopes of joining many more dots.

Before I write about some of these really murky issues I’ve learned about – which need oxygen for wider awareness of this ‘bloody’ poaching war – let me make a few points:

1. I’ve given each person mentioned a pseudonym, for obvious reasons;

2. I’ve left out pieces from stories that might identify the informant to a third party, which could either compromise him or her and/or complicate our obtaining any more information;

3. Plus – finally – I’ve tried to break down issues into some key areas that make for their own ‘mini-stories’.

SWAZILAND – Casinos, denims and rhino horn …

First up, a map of the area – 


My blog was posted on the evening of Wednesday 10 April. On the Friday morning, a generic email offered to tell me about how a Chinese-owned denim jeans business in Nhlangano had links to one or more South African game hunting operators, based in the area between Vryheid, Piet Retief and Ithala Game Reserve, in terms of possible rhino horn trade and transit to Mozambique via Swaziland.

I looked at my blog stats and saw 2 unique page views from Swaziland that morning. (In the past 12 months, I’d never had a Swazi ‘reader’ on any blog, so it was easy to track reads from that country.)

I replied that I’d like to call the person (Sally) to hear more. Finally got to speak to her that evening, via a third person’s mobile number. Swazi readership was now 6.

Sally worked at Nhlangano Casino for a few years until just after the 2010 FIFA World Cup. She had a younger brother who worked for a Chinese denim jean manufacturer as a dispatch packer and a boyfriend (at the time) who was a truck driver at the same plant and did regular trips to Maputo, via Naamacha border post, freighting various goods between the factory and warehouses in Maputo.

After one such trip, she, the boyfriend and brother were chatting and a story evolved of two potential regular game-ranch farmers from SA – who were regular guests at the casino, often with foreign ‘clients’ – seemingly doing business with an owner/manager of the Chinese denim business that appeared to involve “horns or tusks” from dead animals. Smelly, heavy cartons containing black plastic bags, packed in newspaper were delivered to a Chinese wholesaler’s warehouse in Maputo under rather strange situations twice.

Around the start of the World Cup, Sally was on duty at the casino and noticed the Chinese manufacturer having drinks with the two South African game-ranchers, who’d checked in earlier, in a corner of the bar lounge. Naturally, she was suspicious, so she kept an eye on them. They all went out to the car-park. Since it was getting dark, she couldn’t see quite clearly, but it looked like two, rather bulky and heavy, black-plastic bin bags were being transferred from the rancher’s 4×4 vehicle to the Chinese guy’s SUV.  A few minutes later, they shook hands and the Chinese guy left whilst the two ranchers went off to one of their rooms.

That night, the ranchers and a couple of their guests accompanying them tried to change rather large amounts of US$ into SA rands, but the casino didn’t have sufficient cash on hand to assist. They all gambled, but not to any meaningful extent.

Sally’s (by now) ex-boyfriend had another job, but through her brother, she was able to ascertain that a day or two later a truck driver at the plant had delivered a truckload of cartons to a Chinese-owned factory in Manzini and one carton (that “stank”) to another Chinese guy at another small warehouse.

On the Sunday evening after hearing Sally’s story 2 days earlier, I got an email from a certain “Jaco”, who asked if he could call me.  Turns out, he’d worked for quite a large hunting outfit bordering the west of Kruger National Park for a year or so in 2008/9. He started his call to me by saying that he felt some rhino horn was being smuggled out of South Africa and into Mozambqiue via Swaziland. My ears pricked up.

He told the story of how a couple of Thai guys had been hunting guests for a couple of days, during which time he knew of 4 rhino that had been hunted by the ranch owner and a neighbour of his illegally, because they were almost certainly Kruger rhino on their land. On a Friday evening, one of the other young rangers employed there told him that the owner, the neighbour and the 2 Thai guests had gone to play golf and gamble in Swaziland for the weekend. On the Saturday, the owner’s wife mentioned that the Thai guests were going to fly back to Johannesburg from Swaziland and had taken their ‘trophy horns’ with them, but yet they arrived back at the ranch on Sunday evening.

Jaco drove them to a nearby airport on the Monday morning, but there was no sign of any horns. He kept quiet. No one ever said anything about this again.

A couple of months later – on a Friday or Saturday night – at a local town watering hole, he then heard a story about how his boss was part of a hunt on another neighbour’s farm where apparently 2 more Kruger rhino were shot, illegally, a day or two earlier. The next day, he heard from his employer’s son that the rancher had flown that weekend, with a few mates – one of whom had a private plane – and the neighbouring rancher where the latest hunt had taken place was in this ‘tour party’ – to Swaziland for a “bit of golf and gambling”. He wondered to himself about the rhino horns, but never said anything to anyone, and learnt nothing more.

He’d forgotten about all this until he read my blog via Facebook and simply felt there were too many suspicions from his own experience for him to remain quiet.


First up, another map of the relevant area.


‘Mark’ is a South African and works in the field of engineering.  He has done a “few years” of consulting work in building new manufacturing plants in Mozambique. One of his latest projects has been some work for a new Chinese investing company building a new cement processing plant near Maputo.

He’d been sent an email by a friend in conservation asking whether or not his experiences in Mozambique tied into some of what I wrote about in my 10 April blog. We spoke “completely OTR – off-the-record”, as work permits and his consulting work would be threatened by any untoward disclosure.

He alerted me to recent major investments in cement processing in Mozambique.
Here’s a relevant new link, given that these new plants involve substantial Chinese employment, trade and project funding –

Through his email-friend, Mark is linked to a conservation project near Kruger National Park’s southern border, and – as such – is deeply concerned about Mozambique’s rhino-poachers.  Through his many meetings with senior executives of Chinese investment companies in Mozambique, he believed that there “was or is” a very strong “cabal” within their Maputo community, where they seemingly have very senior government officials – “possibly right up to ministerial and senior party leaders” in their “back pockets”.

He told me he has had “far too many” conversations where Chinese role-players there who have told him they can organize anything – from “manipulated environmental impact reports” to “forced removals of peoples” on possible new production/factory land (as he alleges happened in the 80 hectare area of the new Magude cement plant), to “bribed” import permits and even having been offered “US dollars” if he needs “cash” to “grease the hands of community leaders, police and governmental officials who obstruct things” – or words to such effect.

He told me that, on “several occasions” over lunches, dinners or drinks, during small chit-chat, the issue of possible “business opportunities” via “cheap-cheap” Chinese goods, “unwrought gold” and “uncut diamonds”, and even “rhino horn and ivory” has been expressed by his Chinese counterparties, informally, much to his personal dismay. And which he tells me he most politely dismissed, as if it was an absolute “non-starter” for him.

To conclude his call, he related a story of an engineering colleague who has been doing some consulting work for a Chinese company invested with a large South African corporate in building the latest “cement processing plant” in the North West province.

Sephaku – a Johannesburg Stock Exchange company that is controlled by Nigerian multi-billionaire, Aliko Dangote – is building a major cement processing plant near Lichtenburg, using a Chinese construction partner, Sinona.

Story link –

Mark is quite clear that Sephaku and its stakeholders have no part whatsoever in the “conspiracy theory” that he then related to me and this information is simply for background.

He told me that, late last year, he had dinner with his old colleague in Johannesburg. During their conversation, they discussed Chinese investment in Southern Africa, which led his colleague to tell him about a rather strange and somewhat suspicious experience he’d recently had in Lichtenburg.

Apparently Mark’s friend met with a colleague at a local hostelry for a beer after work. Sitting in the corner was a “senior engineer” of the Chinese cement-plant contracting firm he knew, plus a well-known Chinese trader in Lichtenburg. They were in deep conversation with a well-known hunting outfitter in the area, plus some unknown, seemingly-rancher type, local fellow. Apparently the hushed word in the town was that the hunting outfitter guy might have been involved in some of the “Thai prostitute” illicit rhino hunts in the region and had sometimes been seen with “Far Eastern nationals” in his company.

Mark’s buddy went over to greet his Chinese engineer counterpart, out of courtesy, and apparently everyone seemed most uneasy. They left soon afterwards, leaving a couple of unfinished drinks.

Mark told me that the point of his call to me was that everyone should always “be alert to” foreign contractors who show an “unusual interest in our wildlife”.

Point well made, though no specific findings of illicit behaviour can be made, thinks ‘moi’.


Now, let’s introduce “Devan”, who made comms with me about 24 hours after my 10 April blog was published, and he read it via a rhino-page link on Facebook. (Another unknown emailer and “private number” mobile user!)

He, too, is a South African “engineer” who has worked quite extensively in Mozambique, and his special interest area is wireless/mobile telephony, an area quite close to my own heart, so I could understand bits of what he told me.

Let me translate – in the most simple terms possible – what he was seemingly trying to tell me … since this might be the “scariest” news of all here … in my humble opinion, looking forward …

A few years ago, Mozambique licensed a 3rd cell phone network operator, namely Vietnam’s state-owned, Defence department’s, “Viettel”.

The two main players at the time were Mtel (Mozambique’s state owned telephony company – TDM – has a reported 74% in the business, which is 100% state owned) and SA’s Vodacom (via Vodafone).

According to Devan, the challenge has been funding rural roll-outs – not defined in detail in the original licensing agreements – as well as optic fibre infrastructure for broadband. Veittel won its licence tender on this basis.

Accordingly, they went “live” in 2011 and then won a major African network operator award in late 2012 –

Here are some links:

A late 2010 announcement – from what I can gather –

10 October 2011 – http://www.viettel.com.vn/60-64-2-1863-Viettel-officially-puts-mobile-stations-on-air-in-Mozambique.html

16 May 2012 – http://www.viettel.com.vn/menu-60-64-94-Mozambique.html

22 November 2012 – http://www.viettel.com.vn/menu-60-64-94-Mozambique.html

What has this got to do with “rhino-poaching” you will ask.  Quite simple, methinks …

a. According to Devan, they now have the best rural coverage in Mozambique, especially along the Kruger National Park border and environs;

b. Again, according to Devan, Viettel has Vietnamese company management strategically placed in key towns and villages and who are seen as the “great benefactors” (using his words) of these communities, so they have ‘high-standing’ therein and access to political and communal influence;  and

c. Finally – almost critically – he’s aware that Viettel apparently owns some very ‘smart’ tracing/listening and jamming software that means – if required – “could” (and he stresses that point) “over-ride” mobile telephone networks in the Kruger National Park from the Mozambique border, for anywhere between a kilometre and, perhaps, 10 kilometres, inside the park’s eastern boundaries, depending on terrain. Such actions, if implemented, could stymie (block?) wireless connections in these park border areas, PLUS, of course, any use of drones that use such networks for mapping and flight paths. All this “subterfuge” (my word) –  according to Devan – could be “smartly used at local base stations” with the “right flick of the switches”. (Alarming, at the least, sez I!)

Well – not being too stupid and yet not bright enough to speak on such matters technically, I thought this might be a fair reflection of a “worst-case-scenario” … hence my inclusion of this insight here.


1. Fred – in Mpumalanga – believes his former employer, who is quite wealthy, but was very cash-strapped at the time, took illegally hunted and harvested rhino horns to Mozambique to sell and subsequently bought a share in a game farm there … but he’s speculating because “things don’t add up”;

2. George – a South African in Maputo – had a strange experience where a Chinese client’s key director in Maputo (in a ‘cement project’) had scheduled a very important meeting on a day, but yet, when George arrived for it, he discovered that “Chen” had been out of the office most of the previous day and had flown to Mauritius suddenly. George told me that over lunch once, “Chen” had asked him if he knew how he could “lay his hands on some rhino horn for his grandparents in China”, and was then wary of the man;

3. John – ‘criminal lawyer’ – in Maputo made comms and said there’s so much corruption in the criminal justice system that it’s surprising any cases come to court and that major corruption allegations, serious theft of state assets, etc, are routinely lost in the system, and that protecting rhino, elephants and wildlife is simply “treated as being as petty as illegal parking tickets” … another sad comment for my memory bank;

4. Mario – a Mozambique “project manager” for road construction – mailed me and we spoke very briefly. He spent about 6 months in and around Moamba in 2007/8, when a Chinese consortium apparently rebuilt a key bridge that was washed away in flooding a few years earlier. He told me that during that time he was staggered at the trade in obviously illegal DVD’s, music CD’s, cheap cigarettes and clothing – plus more – that mushroomed during his contract in the area.  Apparently, he went back last year, and had to travel to Magude. He said he’d heard stories of how “strange things” happen on the road between Magude and Massingir where men with “rifles” get dropped off and collected 2-3 days later. He suggested I get people in the area to speak more about this;

5. Jenny (a former South African in Mozambique) wrote to me about deeply-rooted corruption there. She further suggested I not be too overly optimistic about reaching schools kids because teachers and community leaders controlled what was taught and how the system operated. She gave an example of how a teenage girl, who was an AIDS orphan, was suspended from a state school because she couldn’t pay the teacher for a key exam test, whilst struggling with zero resources to feed herself and her siblings … heart-breaking stuff, in my eyes; and – finally –

6. A word of meaningful insight came via a mail from a South African that runs a major game conservation programme in Mozambique, adjacent Kruger Park. Mike wrote of  how they spend a fortune annually on supporting anti-poaching initiatives, but these are thwarted by:
– The fact that Mozambique’s laws require that they need a ‘law enforcement’ (police) officer present for suspected poacher activity arrests, which costs are for the account of the reserve, and include daily wages for ‘law enforcement’ personnel, food and any transport;
– Mozambique’s failed judicial and law enforcement system whereby they are completely challenged when there is little or no follow up over suspected poacher arrests/handovers, despite proper reporting to the authorities; and
– Fortunately – and on a very bright side – they enjoy an excellent report with SANparks over area security and liaison, thus helping provide a “buffer” defence area between rural Mozambique and KNP, as difficult and costly as it might be, much of which is funded by benefactors of the reserve.


Very clearly, and based on both the SA statistics for poaching from Mozambique nationals plus my own little “Inspector Clouseau” information, this region is a minefield of murky dealings and serious law enforcement challenges.

My initial gut feel is to put this record out there and see how the cards fall.

Meantime, I do believe a complete think-tank is required in SA to resolve how civil society can engage the government of Mozambique.

People have suggested to me that we South Africans must lobby our own government for pressure. However, my own personal experience – with respect to both human rights and environmental/animal rights, plus lawless crime in neighbouring Zimbabwe, over a decade or more – shows a futile outcome.

To my mind, given the Zimbabwean precedents of a complete lack of any government initiative, on many frontiers, engagement by Pretoria and Maputo will be merely superficial and non-interfering of mutual state affairs. Thus, serious, well-considered geo-political discussions amongst informed and understanding South Africans is a great starting place to strategize, methinks!

If anyone wants to connect with anyone else here, or post me their private thoughts, ideas and information, then please mail me –
briang.sandberg <at> gmail (dot) com …

Hope this has been stimulating food for thought for you, even if somewhat long-winded reading. It’s been a rocky road for me for a week, plus.

Before I sign off, I must relate a fascinating observation on Friday 12 April …

I was tracking user connects on my blog during the day – almost hourly, out of interest, given the seemingly huge public readership.

By mid-morning, I’d had – from memory – 9 Mozambique unique readers/viewers. None from Vietnam.

And an hour or so later, I then had 13 Mozambique connects – i.e. 4 new ones. I was interested, given I’d had about 4 Mozambique unique viewers over the previous 12 months of blogging!.

About an hour later, I had 16 Mozambique connects and TWO from Vietnam.  Maybe completely unrelated, but I found it strange to get such an update from Mozambique and possible connects to Vietnam. Wish I could interrogate the user stats to see locations. Out of about 40 unique page-views in 2 hours or so, it seems most strange that 9 were from Mozambique & Vietnam, both not conforming with general viewer trends.

C’est la vie … 

Thank you for reading thus far and please remember copyright issues do subsist here, and – of course – the security of some important folk who’ve chosen to speak to me OTR – ‘off-the-record’. Please handle all this info with due care … thank you!

Brian Sandberg 
Durban. South Africa

13 Responses to “Mozambique: More mud in the murky “rhino-horn” underworld”

  1. 1 Cary Lang
    April 21, 2013 at 7:56 am

    Brian, once again for your comments which, in my opinion, are very well researched and written. Indeed; we need to address the Moz/SA situation! My concern is now for your safety, watch your back my friend, these people that you report on are dangerous!!!!!

  2. 2 barry
    April 21, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    It Appears a Hit Squad is going to be the result as governments are deeply involved.

  3. 3 Loraine Peverett
    April 21, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Food for thought indeed Brian, concur with Cary, watch you back my friend.

  4. 4 Mark Friedrichs
    April 21, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    Thanks for an interesting reading and eye opener.

  5. April 21, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Good stuff Brian. About time SA people started digging more around hunting near Kruger park. Been farming in Moz for 3 yrs but before here worked for a farmer near Phalaborwa for nearly a year. His neighbour had a game farm next to Kruger and I heard several stories of illegal hunting there from some of the guys in the area, rhino, wildebeest and even lion and leopard ‘cos fences came down and they said that if the animal was on your land it was yours to keep. Also dodgy permits by nature affairs. Not saying more ‘cos I don’t want a target on my back. Agree with others and be careful. Just read about our President’ business empire in Mail and Guardian newspaper ‘cos that tells you a lot. About 100k’s from us there’s a Vietnam company setting up a major rice growing area for export there. Lots of greasy palms we hear. http://mg.co.za/article/2012-01-06-mozambiques-mr-guebusiness/

  6. April 21, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    Your article has been chosen by SouthWeb Editor to be ReBlogged . To see your article, visit http://www.southweb.org. Cheers & keep up the great work!

  7. April 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Thank you Brian, just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse and that we have a good handle on how things are going down, you hear this. Utterly shamefull the number of so called educated folk with fingers in the rhino pie, or should I just say Africa Pie, as it becomes more and more obvious that Africa is being raped and plundered with no end in sight and clearly, no will to begin to change things up…….

  8. May 7, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    Good work Brian! This is a fascinating and rather alarming read! But so important to open that can of worms. It looks like people are taking note of this post, let’s hope it gets the ball rolling in a positive direction.

    • May 9, 2013 at 10:12 am

      Thanks, Africa Far & Wide – and also to all the others who have commented here and written to me …

      Must say, I think it’s most encouraging that some “heavy hitters” have read this blog – and the earlier one – so I must again pay tribute to those special and concerned folk who’ve stepped forward with their own little ‘jigsaw pieces’ of a complex puzzle & allowed me to record their experiences.

  9. 10 Marilyn C
    May 27, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    You are very brave, and I agree with others, stay safe. This is the killing zone, and these players have always operated with sleaze and eaze in the worlds you so aptly describe. This is terrifying on so many levels. I wish it all were just a movie, like a clandestine thriller movie in old black and white with Humphrey Bogart, men operating at these smoky and slinky levels to traffic their booty. What makes this so very much worse than all the past eras of crime syndicates we’ve seen is that not only has this one exposed the international community as impotent, but here they are killing the last of the wildlife, as we ‘speak’. I am helpless from where I’m at. To think men like this will continue to destroy the living, kill the last of the world’s iconic species, profit greedily, gleefully, grotesquely, with impunity, astounds me. They are the worst of mankind, and they find their way into the weaknesses of the rest of mankind. They also make me wish I could personally kill them. None of this is good.

  10. 11 Virginia Woolf
    May 28, 2013 at 3:06 am

    Most interesting blog which made for disturbing reading though not surprised by what you have revealed about the subterfuge and dishonest practices that are now rearing their ugly heads particularly with an increase in Asian investment and development opportunities throughout Africa. This murky wheeling and dealing, behind closed doorsm is part of the course when dealing with selfish and greedy opportunists who will stop at nothing to get what they want irrespective of the consequences to the wildlife and the long term future of South Africa let alone the rest of the African continent. These people are very dangerous hence the need to be very careful in dealing with sensitive and revealing information. Corruption is high places is a major stumbling block to being able to effectively counteract what is happening. I fear for the future of Africa with the now out of control poaching crisis, funded by criminals and thugs, which is heading many species to imminent extinction. There has to be the political and judicial will to bring about much needed change to turn things around for the better and that is yet to be forthcoming throughout much of Africa.

  11. 12 mike rainy
    May 29, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Intrersting chunga mkongo yako brian.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 88 other followers

Blog Readership Stats

  • 35,093 = Number of visitors here

%d bloggers like this: