Kruger poachers get power rifles.
Don Pinnock
26 May 2019

A gun manufacturer in the Czech Republic is implicated in flooding Africa with thousands of high-calibre hunting rifles. Now poachers are even more deadly, writes Don Pinnock

A gunrunning network dubbed the Rhino Rifle Syndicate is behind a worldwide plot to equip poachers in the Kruger National Park with high-powered Czech-made rifles.

An investigation by the Conflict Awareness Project, an international organisation that investigates arms traffickers, has traced how the syndicate helped elevate small-scale rhino poaching to an industrial level.

It found that the syndicate obtained the CZ rifles from the manufacturer and distributed them to poachers by exploiting lax gun regulations and government corruption.

The gunrunning networks include police and safari operators.

The report of a four-year investigation implicates the Mozambican ministry of the interior, and other state authorities there and in SA.

Afour-year investigation, Follow The Guns, by the Conflict Awareness Project (CAP), has uncovered evidence of a gunrunning network operated over five countries and three continents. Headed by CAP director Kathi Lynn Austin, the organisation identified members of what it calls the Rhino Rifle Syndicate. It pieced together how this syndicate hatched a worldwide conspiracy to equip poaching teams in Mozambique and SA with rifles manufactured in the Czech Republic.

Some of these rifles were intended for the American market and bore a roll-mark reading CZ-USA, Kansas City, KS. These rifles were designed and marketed to kill big game and have wreaked havoc in the Kruger National Park, home to the largest concentration of rhinos in the world.

Recovered CZ-USA-branded hunting rifle from rhino crime scene in Mozambique.jpg Photo credit: Kathi Austin

About 90% of the weapons recovered in the Kruger were produced by Ceská zbrojovka Uherský Brod, or CZUB, the Czech Republic’s biggest gunmaker. They’re commonly referred to as CZs.

These rifles were chosen by the Rhino Rifle Syndicate because they fire .375 or .458 calibre rounds, cartridges powerful enough to kill big game with a single shot.

Some of the recovered CZ rifles bear trademark gunrunning networks engravings from CZ-USA, CZUB’s wholly owned US subsidiary, located in Kansas. They were ostensibly made for the American market, but were diverted to Africa for use by rhino poachers.

For many years, according to the CAP report, the Rhino Rifle Syndicate has exploited lax gun regulations and government corruption to traffic firearms undetected. Once the firearms arrive in Africa, they are acquired by a transnational criminal organisation and its local rhino-poaching affiliates.

By systematically supplying the transnational criminal organisation with firearms, says the report, the syndicate helped elevate small-scale commercial rhino poaching to an extraordinary industrial level. It obtains the CZ rifles from the manufacturer en masse and distributes them among poachers. In this way it has established a well-co-ordinated trafficking network and two dedicated international gun-supply chains.

Members of the gunrunning networks include business elites, government officials, police, safari operators, arms dealers, middlemen and local poaching bosses.

The report implicates the Mozambican ministry of the interior, and other state authorities there and in SA.

Gunrunners “proved adept at penetrating the highest levels of government, hijacking high-level security forces and the office of the national Mozambique police force, the commander’s closest advisers and those in charge of the arms-licensing authority”.

The report continues: “These officials enabled the gunrunning network to obtain paperwork on false grounds. They cleared the way for its criminal activities by providing seemingly legitimate licences for imports and sales.

“They assisted in countering threats by preventing law enforcement monitoring and keeping criminal investigations and prosecutions from moving forward.” This ensures the success of their criminal enterprise, carrying out cross-border wildlife crimes on a catastrophic scale.

In February 2015, says the report, the head of the Kruger’s anti-poaching forces, Maj-Gen Johan Jooste, released e-mail correspondence from CZUB and the results of a trace on 28 CZ rifles recovered at rhino-poaching crime scenes.

This indicated that CZ rifles were moving extraordinarily quickly from CZUB to SA’s rhino-poaching crime scenes, a sign that experienced gun traffickers were at work. The information the Kruger provided was actionable. However, “Kruger authorities told us that the park did not act upon the information in a concerted fashion at the time,” says the report.

457American.png Photo credit: Kathi Austin

According to the report, “the collective failure of Czech, Mozambican and South African authorities to address the gun-supply chains — despite the evidence provided in 2015 and 2016 — enabled them to continue their expansion”.

Why the Czech Republic? The country serves as the headquarters of the highly organised Vietnamese mafia’s European branch. The branch’s primary base of operations is a 35ha enclave called SAPA Market, or “Little Hanoi”, near Prague.

The Vietnamese syndicate’s European branch has been caught smuggling an array of contraband, including cigarettes, drugs and counterfeit Gucci and Prada luxury goods.

In 2012, after Czech law enforcement arrested scores of suspected wildlife criminals and confiscated 10 rhino horns, it became clear that the Czech Republic had become a primary wildlife crime node between the eastern and the western hemispheres.

Pseudo-hunting, rhino-horn smuggling and the rhino-poaching syndicate’s rifle-supply chains all converge in the Czech Republic.

By using a “follow-the-guns” methodology, the CAP documented the movement of these firearms, starting from their place of manufacture to their end use by poachers.

“The firearms predominantly moved from CZUB’s company headquarters in the Czech Republic, through arms dealers in Portugal, to gun retail shops in Mozambique. After arriving at the Mozambican gun shops, the rifles were bought by South African and Mozambican middlemen.

“High-ranking Mozambique government officials and police officers conspired with the middlemen to facilitate the purchases. After the middlemen purchased the rifles, they were disseminated among poaching teams by business and political elites, safari company staff, security forces and local poaching bosses.”

The CAP amassed dossiers detailing crimes committed by the key individuals and companies involved in the syndicate. It presented these to law enforcement in five affected countries — the Czech Republic, the US, Portugal, Mozambique and SA. Until now, these authorities have done nothing.

The report’s key findings

New Trends: The types and sources of firearms used by poachers in Kruger National Park and surrounding wildlife areas have changed over time. Stolen firearms and guns recycled from previous wars have increasingly given way to newly minted high­caliber hunting rifles. Poachers often fit these rifles with silencers to avoid detection by anti­poaching forces.

Weapons of Choice: Many of the .375 and .458 caliber rifles used in rhino poaching trace back to Mozambique imports during the past decade. While the rifles were manufactured in the Czech Republic by CZUB, some of them were stamped CZ­USA Kansas City, KS.

This means that CZ­USA, CZUB’s wholly owned American subsidiary was meant to import the rifles for sale in the US. Instead, these guns were diverted to Mozambique before they were moved cross­border to kill rhinos in South Africa.

Corruption: High­level corruption and political influence peddling have fueled the proliferation of CZs in Mozambique and South Africa. Government and law enforcement inaction against the gunrunning networks suggests corruption in South Africa and Mozambique.

Power Dynamics: A transnational criminal organization initially controlled the sourcing and distribution of CZ rifles, guaranteeing direct shares of the profits. This changed in 2016 as the criminal enterprise became more diffused. Poaching teams and syndicates began to break off to form splinter groups, expanding poaching to outlying areas previously less­impacted by the scourge.

The Arms Pipeline: The tracking and tracing of weapons and ammunition through each phase of the supply chain – from their foreign manufacture and export to their local importation, sale and distribution – is a valuable way to collect forensic evidence and implicate top­level players and foreign actors within the wildlife crime syndicates.

Deterrents: The threat of criminal prosecution and asset forfeiture are two of the most powerful instruments governments have to deter wildlife trafficking syndicates. The dossiers compiled on the Rhino Rifle Syndicate should be prioritized by law enforcement in the five countries where the network operates with the aim of building criminal cases that lead to arrests and prosecutions when warranted.

National Loopholes: The export, sale and possession of recreational weapons – including hunting rifles and ammunition – tend to be lightly regulated compared to other types of firearms.

The South African connection: The government needs to launch an urgent inquiry into the failures of its officials and SANParks in particular, to address the proliferation of CZ hunting rifles during early stages of the country’s rhino crisis.

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