This is a guest post by Allen Grane, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.
Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit has released a new documentary titled The Poacher’s Pipeline. The report documents the illicit supply chain of rhinoceros horn from South Africa to China and Vietnam. The report associates South Africa’s minister of state security with an admitted trafficker, and it alleges that Chinese officials that traveled to South Africa with Secretary General Xi Jinping participated in the illicit trade.
Minister of State Security David Mahlobo has denied all claims that he has participated in the illicit trade. In the documentary, self-confessed criminal Guan Jian Guan brags about his personal connections with senior members of the South African government, providing a picture of himself with Minister Mahlobo. The minister has claimed that he had no knowledge of Guang’s criminal enterprises, and that he knew Guang only through his legitimate business, a spa that Mahlobo frequented.
While Mahlobo himself may not be guilty, the case does underlie the fear of many conservationists in South Africa that rhino poachers are well connected politically. However, if Mahlobo was aware of Guang’s criminal activity, it would be damning as the Ministry of State Security is responsible for South Africa’s intelligence services.
The documentary’s allegations of Chinese official participation in the illicit trade of rhino horn (and also ivory) is based on interviews with members of South Africa’s Chinese community who helped the officials procure the animal products. If the stories are true, it would not be the first time officials traveling with Xi Jinping have been accused of procuring illegal animal products. Officials were accused of going on an ivory ‘buying spree’ when visiting Tanzania in 2014. Officially the Chinese government has promised to end the trade in ivory products, but these stories show how difficult it will be to overcome the popularity of the trade.
The Poacher’s Pipeline does an excellent job of illustrating the scale and complexity of the rhino horn trade. Indeed, based on current numbers, if poaching is not abated African rhinos could go extinct in the next fifteen to twenty years. Also clearly demonstrated is the need for government will and action to address the problem and save the two African rhino species.