At least seventy shots from automatic weapons were fired at dusk.
Dominik Graf Beissel immediately sprang to action. Within minutes he was driving up a mountain to observe the bush from above. This was not how he had planned to start his newborn son’s first Christmas Eve. But such sacrifices are not rare in his line of work.
After about an hour, he and two of his rangers heard the dreaded sound of axe on bone. Knowing the threat of armed bandits at dusk was too much for three men to take, they fired blanks into the bush to deter the poachers. But it was already too late for the elephant.
These organised armed attacks are increasingly common at the Mareja reserve in Cabo Delgado in Mozambique. Within the last two years, Beissel estimates Northern Mozambique has lost 60 tonnes of ivory.
Such large amounts of ivory could not be smuggled out of the country without corruption and some cooperation by the authorities, according to Beissel. He told the Independent that “powerful elements” must be involved in poaching and said: “Since 2009, poaching has become a very efficient operation.”
In the run up to the wildlife poaching conference this week, where world leaders will gather to discuss the prevalence of wildlife crime, leaders and diplomats will tread lightly around the pressing issue of corruption and state complicity in environmental crimes.
The Independent and its sister titles’ campaign with Space for Giants has shown the increasing threat elephants are facing across the African continent. Last month, we reported that ivory was being smuggled from Mozambique into southern Tanzania, with border guards on both sides turning a blind eye in exchange for bribes.
Beissel’s revelations give an insight into the extent of corruption in poaching in one region of North-eastern Mozambique.
In raids of poachers’ camps Beissel’s rangers, in conjunction with police and park authorities found “various equipment including new army uniforms, still in their original packaging.
“We have also found boots, automatic weapon ammunition, and other army supplies with the poachers.”
The weapons captured may be an indication of the Mozambican army or police involvement as the weapons captured are usually under their control.
From his experience of facing poachers at Mareja, he said that poachers usually use “one heavy calibre hunting rifle supported by two or three AK47s.”
Military weapons such as AK47s, likely to be obtained through police or army officials, are not designed to kill elephants and results in injuries and slow, painful deaths.
In the last elephant attack that he witnessed Beissel said that poachers emptied two magazines into the animal. “That’s 60 bullets, but the poor elephant kept running, only to die days later and miles away.”
Though he has been at Mareja for nearly 20 years, “no poachers are ever found transporting large amounts of ivory. This must mean the ivory is being smuggled in vehicles which go uninspected at numerous checkpoints.”
In October 2012, Beissel “witnessed a helicopter flying at tree-top height in pursuit of elephants on our reserve.”
These are signs that transportation of ivory must be carefully coordinated to bypass border authorities.
Poaching in Mozambique is a tempting enterprise because of the country’s light penalties. Until 2013, it was only a misdemeanour, not a criminal offence, to kill an elephant.
Beissel told the Independent about a notorious poacher called N’Buana Kalikana, whose name means ‘not all men are equal’, and who has been captured twice in recent years: “The first time, in 2010, he had 150 rounds of ammunition, $5000 (£3000) in cash, mobile phones and a book of contacts.
“All this information was in the hands of the police and the park authority. Within three days he was released on bail for $200 (£120). His money and all his items were returned to him.”
In 2012, N’Buana Kalikana was captured again. This time, he had 457 rounds of ammunition, and new army equipment: uniform and boots.
He added, “its like getting a parking fine or something – you know. Double yellow.”
Beissel has seen as many as 12 elephants killed in a single poaching operation. He said, “given the chance, they will wound a small elephant first. When the females of the herd cluster around to protect the young, they kill the whole herd at once.”
But these efficient poaching operations have almost eradicated Mozambique’s large herds. Beissel claimed that a transport unit were overheard discussing plans in a restaurant: “They were complaining that they had a truck which had a capacity of 4.5 tonnes. They said that two years ago, one group of 2-3 poachers could fill the truck within two days. Now, two or three groups are used in various areas, and they need two weeks to fill the truck.”
With large elephants all but gone, poachers are starting to kill young animals. “The ivory is getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller.”
Herds of up to 16 elephants have been recorded without a single lactating cow. This bleak statistic suggests that it could take years for the area’s elephant numbers to recover.
Along with locals, Beissel also said there were a faction of white hunters, known as the ‘khaki mafia’, who were instrumental in smuggling and ‘sport’ hunting.
These hunters “use the corrupt system to take trophy animals in protected areas, or without due license.”
Beissel said: "The situation in Mozambique has been largely overlooked due to its political history and it is a major contributor to the illegal trade."
Max Graham, CEO of Space for Giants commented “The tragic news emerging from Mozambique illustrates just how militarized elephant poaching has become and how important it is that we see real political and financial commitments from this London conference to turn the tide.”
Dr Graham said that Space for Giants’ work in Kenya was an example of “what is achievable with the right blend of political and financial commitment.”
He said: “While we haven’t stopped elephant poaching here [in Kenya], there is a very real sense that we now have the upper hand and that is critical.”
“We must now push to scale up these efforts and bring poaching under control among other vulnerable elephant populations. And of course we must look to the East, to demand an end to demand.”
China now invests more in Mozambique than the West. Large Chinese run co-operations with connections in the government as well as the Export-Import bank of China have invested in government projects, and the Chinese government has cancelled £32 million of the country’s debt since 2001.
As a result of increasingly close diplomatic ties, officials are willing to overlook wide-scale poaching and logging in the country. Beissel commented: “When they get the main cake, officials are willing to overlook the scraps. The scraps in this case are the elephants.”
Demand for ivory is at its peak in Asia, and profits are higher than ever before. Beissel said: “China needs Africa. Only a few years ago, they were thought of as a developing country. They can say to African leaders ‘We remember the indignity. We will not do this to you’.
“Unlike the EU, UN, or NGOs from the West, they put cash on the table in the form of ‘untied’ aid – little to no checking, no bureaucracy.”
In May 2013, Mozambique reported that rhinos had become extinct throughout the country. Elephant populations are now increasingly under threat. The latest trend is hunting lions for their claws - which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Beissel said that recently, his rangers found a dead lion, killed by a gang of poachers. “They extracted just the claws and fangs and left the entire carcass there.”
Beissel said: “Our resources are squeezed and the stakes are higher than ever before. Some of our rangers may not be able to read or write, but they go out and fight poachers every single day.”
Omar Remane, a spokesperson from the Mozambican High Commission was asked to comment on police and army involvement in poaching. He said: “Being a complex issue, what I can say is that the Mozambican Government is mindful about this increasing challenge and action is already in place to fight poaching.
“The poaching will be soon criminalized by Mozambican law and there [is] ongoing regional cooperation (with Southern Africa), [and] initiatives to bring together different countries to this fight.
He said, “If a Mozambican soldier or police is involved in the poaching, he does it individually and has to be fought and brought to justice.”
The Independent’s elephant campaign with Space for Giants urges leaders at London conference this week to make a firm stand against poaching in their countries. Conservationists across Africa and Asia are inhibited in their work to protect elephants by corrupt authorities who are involved in this brutal trade. This corruption comes at a great cost to one of the world’s most magnificent animals.