Mozambique busts notorious rhino poacher

By Estacio Valoi 

  • A sting operation led by Mozambique’s National Criminal Investigation Service has netted notorious alleged poacher Simon Ernesto Valoi and an associate in possession of eight rhino horns.
  • Conservationists say Valoi and other poaching kingpins have operated freely from Massingir district to poach thousands of rhinos just across the border in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
  • Valoi’s arrest, following the January sentencing of another major rhino horn trafficker to 30 years in jail, may be a further sign that Mozambique’s law enforcement authorities are successfully targeting high-level poachers.

MAPUTO — Authorities in Mozambique have arrested two men for allegedly attempting to sell rhino horn in the country’s capital, Maputo. Hilario Lole, a spokesperson for the National Criminal Investigation Service (SERNIC), said the men — notorious rhino poacher Simon Ernesto Valoi, widely known by his nickname, “Navara,” and an associate, Paulo Zukula — were caught on July 26 in possession of eight rhino horns.

Lole told a July 29 press conference that the pair had brought pieces of horn from rhinos poached in Mozambique’s Gaza province and from Massingir district, on the border with South Africa’s Kruger National Park, to Maputo to meet a potential buyer — not suspecting they were being caught up in a sting operation.

At the press conference, Zukula admitted to accompanying Valoi to Maputo to set up the sale, meeting someone known to Valoi at a hotel in Maputo “He told us to go down. We went down, we entered the [hotel] reception. He [Valoi] is the one who knows him. They started talking. When he left, the police came in.”

Residents queueing for water in the Mozambican town of Massingir in SW Mozambique, not far from the South African border and Kruger National Park. Image by Estacio Valoi for Mongabay.
Residents of Massingir queue for water: there are few economic opportunities in the southwestern Mozambican town on the border with South Africa. Image by Estacio Valoi for Mongabay.
Villa belonging to a suspected poacher in Massangir: these luxurious homes stand in contrast to the general impoverishment of the district. Image by Estacio Valoi for Mongabay.
Villa belonging to a suspected poacher in Massangir, Mozambique. Image by Estacio Valoi for Mongabay.

Poaching with impunity

Valoi, who also goes by the name Simon Tivani, lives in Massingir, a dusty, downtrodden district about 330 kilometers (205 miles) north of Maputo, on the border adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. He is widely believed by locals and law enforcement alike to be a violent poacher and a car thief, responsible for more than one murder.

Conservationists such as Carlos Lopes Pereira, director of law enforcement and anti-poaching at Mozambique’s National Administration of Conservation Areas (ANAC), have long warned that organized syndicates infiltrating Kruger from neighbouring Mozambique are the biggest threat to rhino populations.

South Africa’s environmental department recorded 1,700 rhinos poached across the country’s national parks in the past five years, almost all of them in Kruger, with poachers killing many more on privately held reserves. A database maintained by the investigative environmental journalism site Oxpeckers says 5,152 rhinos have been killed in Kruger National Park since 2010. Reporting by Oxpeckers says that Valoi and other poaching kingpins have built mansions with the profits from the sale of rhino horn to Chinese and Vietnamese buyers over the past two decades.

These opulent homes stand in contrast to the general poverty of the rural district of Massingir, where most people are subsistence farmers, with few other employment opportunities. Recent development of ecotourism has not yet translated into widespread benefits for the local population.
This lack of opportunity makes it easy for rhino horn traffickers to recruit young men to send across the border to hunt rhinos, a risky undertaking that exposes these low-ranking poachers to capture or even death in firefights with heavily armed rangers and other security forces protecting the park and the border.

Antonio Abacar, administrator of Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park, said the country’s wildlife laws and their enforcement are flawed. “The current legislation only serves to punish the low-level poachers, leaving the traders, transporters and middlemen at large,” he said.

But increased attention by Mozambican authorities to combating poaching of rhinos and other wildlife crimes may be beginning to bear fruit. Another poaching kingpin, Admiro Chauque, was arrested in May 2021 and sentenced to 30 years in prison in January this year, found guilty of hunting protected species, illegal possession of weapons, and association to commit crimes.

With Valoi’s arrest last week, poachers who have long enjoyed free rein to operate from southwestern Mozambique may begin fearing the law is catching up to them.

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