Zambian national Witness Katongo (not his real name) is probably the angriest inmate of Khami Maximum Prison, a maximum security complex which lies west of Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe.
Katongo is currently serving the third year of a 14-year jail term after being found guilty on three counts of attempted murder and the illegal possession of 9 elephant tusks in March 2016. Because he lived to tell his story, Katongo considers himself one of the few lucky Zambian poachers in Zimbabwe.
“Most Zambian poachers who ventured into Zimbabwe never lived to tell their story. So I am very lucky to be alive, never mind the maiming. I know of many who were buried as paupers in this country because their families never got to know of their deaths,” Katongo told The Botswana Gazette.
Narrating events leading to the clash that left him with a heavily-stitched up the right leg and an amputated left, Katongo recalls leading a gang of 14 Zambian poachers back from Botswana through the Robbins Camp area of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe early one morning in February 2016.
Armed with three AK-47 and two .303 rifles to protect their three grain bags laden with ivory, the gang had been taking a short-cut through Zimbabwe to the Deka Pan on the Zambezi after a 9-day poaching expedition in the Pandamatenga area of northern Botswana.
“It was still dark as I led the group in single file through the forest. It was raining heavily, and that worried me because it made for poor visibility. We were supposed to be at Deka Pan (the confluence of the Deka and Zambezi rivers) before the afternoon rains, to meet the dug-out canoe teams to ferry us across to Zambia. It was then that suddenly, what I thought was a shrub materialised into a soldier right in-front of me. Two other ‘shrubs’ rose on the left, erupting in a clutter of gunfire,” recounts the now inmate and former poacher.
“Before I could unsling my AK-47 and return fire, I was downed by a hail of bullets that shattered one leg. The other two guys with AK-47s returned fire as they scattered and took to their heels with the rest of the group. One porter dropped a bag with 8 elephant tusks. I was arrested with a 16-year old boy who quickly secured his freedom by selling out to the police,” he said.
Among the 12 who escaped were two porters with 2 bags containing 16 more elephant tusks, all poached in Botswana. Katongo began serving his jail term in Zimbabwe mid-2017 after a series of surgical operations that resulted in the amputation of his left leg.
In prison, the heavily-built ex-Zambian soldier has turned to Christianity and ‘found God’. Perhaps it was in that spirit that when I visited him at Khami prison on July 30, he decided to open up on the recruitment, structure, financing, arming and operations a cross-border Zambian poaching.
The Zambian village of Simonga
According to Katongo, any Zambian poaching group that intends to operate in Zimbabwe or Botswana is bound to fail if it does not include a community member, or get help from Simonga, a poor Zambian fishing village that lies across the Zambezi from Sindabezi Island east of the Victoria Falls.
“The marksmen, weapons and force protection guys are usually former or serving soldiers and policemen. They rarely come from the villages, but the trackers, guides and porters will always come from Simonga and other villages on the Zambezi. Every November, a local businessman based in Choma comes to the village to recruit poachers to hunt elephants in Zimbabwe and Botswana.
“He brings money, food, phones, multiple sim-cards, AK-47s, hunting rifles and ammunition. Marksmen recruit the porters, couriers and a communications coordinator who remains behind to relay information between the gang and the Lusaka-based Chinese syndicate through the Choma-based businessman,” Katongo narrated.
From villages like Simonga, the gangs cross the Zambezi into Zimbabwe in dug-out canoes hired from and operated by locals. There are two major routes across Zimbabwe: one fraught with the danger of detection and the unwinnable gun battles, while the other is considered navigable, barely.
“Those who cross from upstream of the Victoria Falls reach Botswana by transiting through the Zambezi National Park. However, that route is dangerous because it’s a narrow space, full of dangerous wildlife and covered by very regular patrols on the ground and from the air. The Deka Pan crossing is safer. It leads into unpatrolled land outside the park area until one reaches Robbins Camp. From there, we march through day to reach Botswana by nightfall. With the help of Batswana poachers, we hit the herds roaming outside the parks. It can be weeks to a month before the hunting party returns to Zambia,” Katongo revealed.
Since joining the Simonga-based poaching gang in 2011, Katongo has hunted elephants throughout the Kasane, Pandamatenga, Nata and Maun areas. Despite the shoot-to-kill policy practised for years by the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), Zambian gangs have reduced Botswana to a playground.
“In Botswana, there are more elephants outside the protected areas than in. Due to their wide dispersal and high mobility during the rainy season, it becomes impossible to protect every herd. Poaching gangs split up into groups that stalk herds for days shooting until they get the ivory quantity required by those in Lusaka,” he said.
Without incident, poachers who return to Zambia through the Robbins Camp-Deka Pan route are often able to reach the Zambezi in one night and half-day. However, many have run into trouble when making day-time crossing by either getting lost or running into patrols.
Zambian poachers in Botswana
According to the Department of Department of Wildlife and National Parks up to 30 incidents of poaching were reported in the Ngamiland District between May and July 2018.
DWNP director Otisitswe Tiroyamodimo said this year there has been an upsurge in elephant poaching involving mostly foreign citizens. Investigations by the The Botswana Gazette have revealed the involvement of Zambian citizens in at least five major ivory seizures involving 66 elephant tusks in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia since August last year.
These include the August 2017 seizure in Francistown of 23 elephant tusks from a group that included two Zambians and the January 2018 seizure of 4 elephant tusks poached from Botswana from two Zambian and some Namibians in Katima Mulilo.
In June, a suspected Zambian poacher abandoned 13 elephant tusks at a police checkpoint at the Ngwesha Veterinary gate and fled. In July, another Zambian national who was part of a 14-member gang returning home via Zimbabwe was shot and killed in an operation that led to the recovery of 15 elephant tusks, arms and ammunition.
(Part 2 will continue on operations involving infiltration of Botswana from Namibia and the Zambian poaching gangs in Maun)