Zimbabwean parks employees allegedly managed to steal ivory from the Hwange stockpile since 2012 and export it to international trafficking syndicates. Oscar Nkala finds out how they operated
One reason for the tight security around the Main Camp headquarters inside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is that it contains an ivory warehouse which holds more than half the country’s accumulated ivory stockpile of 70 tonnes.
Here, all chips and pieces of rhino and elephant ivory recovered from poachers, poached animals, culling programmes, cases of natural death and, of late, elephants routinely slaughtered to feed the public at government functions are received, registered and issued with serial numbers.
Until October 5 2015, the ivory warehouse in Hwange National Park was run by a three-man team made up of game rangers Masimba Nyoni and John Pedzisai as registry and tracking clerks, and senior parks ecologist Edwin Makuwe as store manager.
Their duties included receiving and recording new ivory on a tracking form which requires precise details, including where the piece was sourced, how, when and by whom.
Prior to acceptance into the warehouse, the ivory is measured, weighed and allocated a unique serial number that starts with a source-code. This is a two-digit number which identifies the specific zone or rangeland of a game park from where the ivory was sourced.
For example, the source-code for ivory from the Sinamatella section of Hwange is 20. The form also lists the cause of death or manner used to acquire each piece.
As station manager, Makuwe’s duties included certifying that such records were correct, and signing movement, translocation and export permits for all ivory entering or leaving the warehouse.
In this capacity, he was solely responsible for signing export approval permits for all the ivory exported legally from Hwange on behalf of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. By design, the system sounds fool-proof, seeming to cover all the tracks from the sourcing to the disposal of the ivory.
However, in October 2015 Makuwe and his two subordinates were arrested on charges related to the theft of ivory from the warehouse. A police investigation linked the three to ivory smuggling after 62 tusks were intercepted at the Harare International Airport destined for China.
While inspecting the ivory stash, detectives discovered that at least four of the tusks had serial numbers which identified them as property of the Main Camp ivory warehouse.
Under interrogation, a Chinese smuggler allegedly involved in the deal showed detectives a fake parks authority export permit that was signed by Makuwe, purporting to be acting in his capacity as certifying authority of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
After checking with the parks authority, detectives found that the export had not been authorised by the government and that the buyer was not a legal representative of the Chinese government, as he had claimed in statements and sworn affidavits.
The legal case was short-lived: Makuwe was not asked to plead to charges of fraud and was released on $600 bail in October. He and his alleged accomplices have not appeared in court again.
How to steal serialised ivory
Six months after the arrests, Oxpeckers visited Hwange National Park and discovered that while Zimbabwe’s ivory tracking system is indeed fool-proof from the outside, available evidence seems to suggest that it can be fooled and defeated from within.
In Hwange, Oxpeckers spoke to a senior member of the Special Investigations Unit, an arm of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority that investigates internal crimes. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation.
He explained how, since 2012, the Hwange trio had allegedly managed to steal and export ivory undetected by manipulating the registration system.
The alleged theft was engineered through a double registration system that gave one serial number to two identical pieces of ivory booked into storage, he said.
“They would allocate one serial number to two identical pieces of ivory. They would then steal the excess piece and destroy the duplicate record. That way, no audit ever detected the anomaly, and I swear they would still be exporting today if the Chinese man had not blundered in Harare [airport],” he said.
“To facilitate the theft, Makuwe would issue fake export permits and use parks security personnel and police units to guard the vehicles transporting the ivory all the 880km from Hwange to the buyers in Harare on the pretext that these were legal exports by the authority.”
One feature that quickly comes to the notice of many who drive on Zimbabwean highways these days is the high number and density of police roadblocks where drivers are stopped for spot checks on their cargoes and motor registration, insurance and licence plates.
The detective explained how the trio managed to beat the police checks, moving large quantities of ivory on fake permits through the 34 24-hour checkpoints along the 880km route from Hwange to Harare.
“After documenting and packaging the export-bound ivory, Mafuwe was authorised to call the police commander in Hwange to get an armed escort to accompany at least one of his subordinates who would do the necessary paperwork upon delivery of the consignment to Harare,” he said.
“In Zimbabwe, the police are required by law to escort all precious state cargo and they don’t have to ask questions when requested to provide that service. So the police never knew they were escorting stolen ivory straight into the hands of a syndicate until the three explained [during the police investigation] how they did it,” the detective said.
The investigation was dropped due to the influence of senior parks authorities from Harare who intervened to protect the trio, allegedly to shield others involved in the ivory export scam at the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority headquarters, according to another detective involved in the case.
Defeating the system
In the small town of Dete, which lies on the northern edge of Hwange National Park, a former detective who was part of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID)’s elite Minerals and Border Control Unit explained how the investigation was defeated from within.
The detective retired in February, for reasons unrelated to the case. Like the parks detective, he asked not to be named for fear of victimisation from his employers and retribution from the ivory trafficking syndicates.
“I was drafted into the investigation two days after the Chinese man was arrested in Harare. We went to Main Camp and seized all documents relating to the registration and export of ivory,” he said.
“I cannot give you all the details, but by October 8 2015 we had obtained all the evidence for a water-tight case which appeared to implicate some senior parks bosses and Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate officials who are based in Harare.
“Sometime in October 2015, we received a call from the bosses in Harare ordering the entire police team to hand over all information and rough pads, including the notebooks we had used in the investigation, to the CID Special Investigations Unit at police headquarters in Harare, which would take over the investigation given the sensitivities of some of the names we had turned up.
“That was the last we heard, and when I met one of the accused persons weeks after he had returned to work in November 2015, he told me the investigation had been called off by parks top brass in Harare.”
The retired detective confirmed this week that charges had not been dropped against Makuwe and his alleged accomplices, but that the investigation against them was stopped abruptly after his initial court appearance in October 2015.
“The accused persons were transferred from Hwange to other stations in a country-wide re-deployment of game rangers in January this year,” he said.
A public prosecutor at the Hwange Magistrate’s Court said on April 19 2016 that the case against the trio is still pending and referred Oxpeckers to a records clerks, who said she was unable to find any dockets associated with the case.
Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesperson Caroline-Washaya Moyo confirmed that the trio were charged with manipulating the records of the registration data capture system to create loopholes which facilitated thefts.
However, she professed ignorance about why the trial of the Hwange trio ended. She was also unable to say whether the three had returned to work after their arrests or were transferred from Hwange, as reported by The Herald in December 2015.
Attempts by Oxpeckers to track down the Hwange trio prove fruitless as the parks authority declined to provide information on where they were deployed following a re-shuffle that saw 35 senior game rangers dispersed from Hwange to stations in other national parks across the country in December.
In a telephone interview from Harare, Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Oppah Muchinguri told Oxpeckers that internal corruption was facilitating the leakage of state-owned ivory by employees working with, or for, international syndicates.
“The investigations we have conducted since late last year prove that there was indeed a lot of ivory theft from within the parks authority itself,” she said. “The markets included Chinese people, some of whom sometimes buy ivory legally from government sales.
“There are also several game rangers who have been arrested for poaching through the use of cyanide poisoning or shooting elephants in Hwange.
“We know of cases where poached ivory has been legalised by issuance of fake registration and export permits by officials in charge of the ivory stores in Hwange, Matopo and Gonarezhou National Parks.
“It is unfortunate that the criminal elements in our regional offices work for bosses who manage and protect the criminal syndicates from the comfort of their offices here in Harare,” Muchinguri said.
She declined to provide further details, but said the government has started the process of cleaning up corruption and the structures that sustain it from within the parks system.