The fight against rhino poachers in South Africa is a lucrative business. Well-armed units patrol the parks and reserves – and have been accused of murdering innocent people.
By Fritz Schaap
It’s one year before the case is to be taken to the United Nations when Megan Carr boards a plane at the Cape Town airport and slides into her seat. A book is lying in her lap, but she is too nervous to read. Carr is flying to the east coast of South Africa to investigate a series of murders that likely has its roots deep in the country’s apartheid history. In Durban, she rents a car and heads north.
It’s the middle of January 2020. A blond woman with a decisive gait, Megan Carr is wearing jeans and a black top. During the drive, she talks about the threats she has received as a result of her investigation. The point of the threats, she says, is sheer intimidation.
The reason for her journey is a substance whose sale and trafficking is illegal, but has been in great demand for years: rhinoceros horns. The number of poached rhinos in South Africa has rocketed upward at times: from 13 animals killed in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014, the tragic peak thus far. Since then, the numbers have stagnated at a high level. The country essentially declared war on poachers, resulting in the Rhino Wars, a conflict intended to save the rhinoceros.
Yet even as the number of poached animals is dropping again, the dirty trafficking of rhino horns, ivory and with live animals continues: Estimates of annual revenues range from $7 billion to $23 billion. The majority of rhino horns are smuggled to Asia, where they are sold on the black market for the equivalent of up to 53,000 euros per kilogram. Wild animals or parts of their bodies, including the rib cages of lions or the scales of the ground pangolin, have become some of the most lucrative black-market goods in the world. Only the trafficking of drugs, forged name-brand products and people brings in more money.
The Rhino Wars have had significant consequences for South Africa. Because the fight against poachers was supported by animal conservation organizations and private park owners in addition to the state, well-armed anti-poaching units popped up across the country, many of them in private hands. Since then, they have been patrolling parks and reserves like paramilitary units and hunting down suspected poachers, some of them with helicopters and grenade launchers. Animal protection has transformed into a brutal business, undertaken in part by people who act like soldiers. Since the beginning of the Rhino Wars, according to estimates by animal protection activists, more than a thousand suspected poachers may have died in suspected extrajudicial killings.
Thrown from Helicopters
And the hunt for poachers isn’t free of racism. Risenga Matelakengisa, formerly head of personnel for Kruger National Park, decries systematic abuse of black rangers by white people in his book “Untold Stories About the Dark Side of the Kruger National Park.” According to Matelakengisa’s book, the interrogation of suspects is reminiscent of apartheid. He says that men who have been apprehended by anti-poaching units have even been thrown to their deaths from helicopters.
Indeed, even well-respected animal protection organizations like WWF have had to contend with accusations that they have worked together with suspected criminals. In spring 2019, Buzzfeed reported about rangers and anti-poaching units that had allegedly beaten, tortured, sexually abused and even murdered countless people in national parks in Africa and Asia. The WWF, according to the allegations, armed and financed the units responsible. Money from the German Development Ministry has also been provided to WWF.
The ministry cut some of that funding after the scandal. The U.S. Congress also launched an investigation and the U.S. Department of the Interior, as the responsible ministry in Washington, ceased payments of more than $12 million to different animal protection organizations. WWF admitted that it had failed to satisfy all of its obligations but cited an investigation performed by an independent panel, which found that WWF employees were not involved in human rights violations.
DER SPIEGEL spent more than a year following the investigations of Megan Carr – who is fighting against the illegal methods used by the anti-poaching units – in addition to speaking with suspected victims and confronting possible perpetrators. The fight to protect wild animals is a story in which good and evil are tightly entwined.
Carr’s path to fighting criminal schemes and human rights violations in the reserves of South Africa was not a straight one. She is actually a goldsmith and spent years working in an upscale Cape Town suburb. In her youth, she protested against the brutal racism in her country and joined demonstrations against the apartheid regime in addition to joining her parents in hiding opponents of apartheid in their home. Later, she became active in animal protection organizations, but she didn’t lose sight of the fight against racism.
Several years ago, she says, she learned of a unit that was allegedly luring innocent people into traps, where they would arrest or even kill them and claim they were poachers to collect a reward. Carr could hardly believe her ears. If the fight against suspected poachers really was resulting in innocent people being killed for profit, it would be a huge scandal.
Goldsmith Carr rapidly transformed into a super-sleuth. She spoke with suspected victims, established contact with government agencies and combed her way through police files. She even worked for a time as a police informant, she says, to support the authorities in their investigations of the anti-poaching units. But nothing happened, so she took over the investigations herself.
It’s early morning and Carr is sitting on the terrace of her hotel in St. Lucia, a town on the east coast. Four men approach cautiously, their eyes alert – lanky men in crumbling shoes. They say they are victims of a particularly brutal group that has been hired by wildlife reserves to hunt down poachers.
Speaking quietly in Zulu, one of them tells the story of how he fell into the group’s clutches. An acquaintance of his, he says, asked him in June 2014 if he could help out with the transportation of a load of bricks. He and three other men, he relates, drove in a pickup along a dirt road to the place where they were supposed to pick up the bricks. It was around 6 p.m. Suddenly, his acquaintance asked him to stop the pickup so he could relieve himself.
It was, the man relates, an ambush, and the anti-poaching unit, he says, was already pointing their weapons at them. “When the first shots were fired, we threw our hands up and fell to the ground.” Several white men, he relates, beat them with their weapons. “At the police station, they continued to beat us to keep us quiet. Only a week later did we learn that we had been charged with poaching.”
He insists that he has never been a poacher. “I was in prison from 2014 to 2019. Then, I was exonerated.”
The other three have similar stories to tell. One claims to have met more than 20 other men who shared a similar fate. “They were all in prison with us.” All claim to have been lured into a trap from somebody who later disappeared, he says. And an anti-poaching unit called Nyathi was always involved. Now, the man is afraid that members of Nyathi could pose a threat to him. “We are afraid,” he says. “We don’t know when they will come to kill us. Because once we are all dead, the truth about what they did will never come out.”
Carr asks about the intermediaries who established the initial contacts and takes notes on her iPhone.
She is familiar with the Nyathi unit that the men are talking about. There are a number of different heavily armed security firms in South Africa that make money by hunting down poachers. But this particular group is perhaps the best example of the apparent failure of state control and the presumed complicity of the police, says Carr.
A “Dirty Business”
Nyathi is a well-known anti-poaching group in South Africa, responsible for combating poaching in the Phinda Reservation, a nature reserve with private lodges in eastern South Africa. For quite some time, Nyathi was in great demand in the region, says Carr. It is led by former apartheid police officers, she says.
A former ranger from the reserve told DER SPIEGEL: “Phinda is the place where the bodies are buried.” He describes the alleged Nyathi modus operandi as follows: The unit usually works together with Pierre van Zyl-Roux, a former police officer who was fired in 2017 due to accusations – which were never verified in a court of law – that he had shot and killed poachers. Zyl-Roux has denied the allegations, but the ranger nevertheless claims that the former police officer, together with Nyathi, lured innocent people into a trap and then collected a reward from an animal protection fund. Zyl-Roux did not respond to a request for comment from DER SPIEGEL.
“It’s a dirty business involving a lot of money,” says Megan Carr. “Those who are supposed to be the good guys are frequently even worse than the poachers.”
Her life has been increasingly consumed by her investigation into the Nyathi unit. She quit working as a goldsmith and her relationship fell apart. If you talk to Carr these days, she hardly talks about anything else.
She parks her car not far from the N2 highway on the red earth typical of the KwaZulu-Natal province. She is here for a meeting with Johan William, head of a private nature reserve. Nyathi was responsible for protecting the animals in the reserve.
“They killed a lot of people,” he says of Nyathi.
William has asked that his real name not be used out of fear of retaliation. Friends of his say that he sleeps with a pistol under his pillow, the safety off. He says he cannot rely on the police.
Years ago, William hired the men from Nyathi to protect the reserve from poachers. Before long, though, he began to have his doubts about the methods used by the unit. He looked into it and found a number of inconsistencies.
Crime scenes seemed to him to have been altered, incidents invented, and uninvolved people arrested. He says they would present a made-up situation to innocent people, supply them with weapons and then lure them into the reserve – into the trap they had set, as William would later discover. “Then they would arrest them. Or even shoot them.” For every poacher they arrested or killed, they would receive a bounty from the Munyawana Conservation Fund, William says. “I know of four people that they killed here,” he says.
He believes that the number of murders began increasing because more and more innocent people were ending up in jail and they could tell their stories. When contacted, the Munyawana Conservation Fund said they were aware of the accusations, but added that they had been refuted by a police investigation. Nyathi headquarters did not respond to a request for comment sent by DER SPIEGEL.
Looking for Justice
Thus far, none of those allegedly responsible at Nyathi have been brought to justice and investigations have gone nowhere. The tenure of former President Jacob Zuma has left its mark, with state institutions having been weakened while incompetence and corruption spread into every nook and cranny of public administration. The resistance Carr ran up against from the very beginning was substantial and it quickly became clear to her that she needed help.
One paragraph in the report, in particular, grabbed Carr’s attention. In it, Austin describes a private anti-poaching unit that police believed had lured innocents into deadly traps. The name of the unit, she would later say, was Nyathi.
Austin normally doesn’t work in conservation, instead focusing on the world of smugglers and organized crime. For the last 30 years, she has been hunting down arms dealers, working for Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Justice Initiative and for the United Nations. These days, she runs her own NGO called the Conflict Awareness Project (CAP) and works for the University of California, Berkeley.
Austin played a significant role in the arrest and conviction of Viktor Bout, who is now in prison. Once known by the nickname “Merchant of Death,” Bout used to be one of the most notorious arms dealers in the world and Austin spent almost 15 years tracking him down. Megan Carr wrote to Austin about her own investigations.
It’s June of last year and Austin, dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, is sitting on the terrace of a lodge in Hoedspruit, a town in northeastern South Africa. It is the first meeting between Carr and Austin, and the American says she is hoping to complete the investigation into the rogue anti-poaching units that she began as part of her research for the “Follow the Guns” report. She says she has already gathered a significant amount of evidence implicating Nyathi and has conducted long interviews with analysts, victims, community leaders and police officers. Many, she says, confirmed the suspicions of Nyathi.
“Those are bad guys. They killed right and left,” says Austin.
Carr offers to help her establish contact with the victims she has tracked down. “I have never encountered anything like the conservationist scene,” Austin says. The national parks and nature reserves, she says, have become playgrounds for racists, and that high-ranking police officers are involved. She believes that serious human rights violations have occurred. “It pains me personally that nobody has been arrested.”
Taking It to the UN
She wants justice for the victims and for the entire swamp to be drained. She believes that the fight against poaching, which receives significant financing from foreign donations, continues to be important, but stricter controls must be applied to the units. She considers the entire industry to be under-regulated, with too many human rights violations, too much torture, too many deaths and too little attention from the police and judiciary. And if people have, in fact, been killed with the help of donations, it could have legal consequences for those who provided the money. Austin wants to ensure that pressure is increased on animal-welfare groups who join forces with dubious anti-poaching units. And she wants to ensure that donors don’t unwittingly make themselves complicit, particularly given that in addition to private donations, public entities like governments, the United Nations and the World Bank are also involved.
The leaders of Nyathi, she is told later by a Kruger National Park employee, are purely and simply racists. One should never underestimate the power of old networks, the employee says, because almost all of the men who lead Nyathi used to be police officers during apartheid.
Carr began providing contacts to Austin and in July, they met with a lawyer in St. Lucia who had represented many of the Nyathi victims in court. The lawyer brought along several binders containing incriminating material to the meeting. One of them contained a photo of a dead man who had been killed with two gunshots to the head.
In early August, a police chief in South Africa agreed to meet with the two women and assured them he would pursue the investigation.
A few days later, Kathi Lynn Austin flew back to Virginia to write a report for U.S. Congress about the results of her investigations. She hopes to convince the incoming administration of Joe Biden to link state funding for animal-welfare groups with stricter legal standards. Austin’s organization, the Conflict Awareness Program, will approach members on both sides of the aisle in the new Congress in the hopes of convening a hearing on the matter and to push for appropriate oversight. She had already been in close contact with the last Congress to lobby for the passage of a bill to that effect.
The United Nations is also set to address the issue. CAP, together with its human rights partners, is in the process of engaging the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN stakeholders to determine how they might assist on the problem of human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings committed by paramilitary anti-poaching units. Megan Carr, the goldsmith, has since found a job with an animal-welfare group in South Africa. The case on which she has obsessively worked for years will soon be addressed on a much larger stage. Without her presence.