Mozambique is home to some magnificent sandveld forests: Gorongosa National Park ©Tony Weaver

Man Friday, August 4, 2017

By Tony Weaver

Mozambique has a special place in my heart. I first went there as a child of four or five, when the road north of what was then Lourenço Marques (Maputo) was a sandy track. We got as far as Vilanculos in our old Volkswagen Kombi.

I have memories of feasts of prawns, fresh fish, oysters and other delicacies while camping on the beach, and of a mad dash to find a mission doctor after my oldest brother slipped on a reef and slashed open his leg on a razor clam.

There have been many return visits – a school tour when I was 13, fly in visits to the war zones as a journalist covering the civil war, a memorable couple of weeks spent exploring the Zambezi by boat from its mouth at Chinde to the gorge of Cahora Bassa with Kingsley Holgate, and more recently, three separate holidays with my wife and two children. The last trip was something of an epic, a six week journey all the way up to Nacala in the north, with a sojourn on magical Ilha da Moçambique, the ancient island capital of pre-colonial Mozambique.

On that trip, we had intended going right up to the remote and vast Niassa National Reserve on Mozambique’s border with Tanzania, but we were warned that poaching was rife and solo travel was not advisable. Just how rife has now become clear as numbers emerge of just how many elephants have been slaughtered in the past seven years.

Niassa’s elephant population went from 15 400 10 years ago to 12 000 in 2011, to 6 100 in May, 2015, to just 3 675 counted in last year’s Great Elephant Census. The huge increase in poaching has been blamed on an influx of poachers from Tanzania, where the elephant population has already been hammered.

On the expedition up the Zambezi with Kingsley Holgate, we found there to be a depressing lack of birdlife and wildlife once we had left the delta near Chinde, and the Marromeu National Reserve area. On our journey, we were constantly offered live birds for sale – endangered White-Crowned Lapwings, Green Pigeons, Emerald Spotted Wood Doves, Brown Headed Parrots and Lilian’s Lovebirds.

At Chupanga on the banks of the Zambezi, the site of the grave of Mary Livingstone, traders offered us friezes of river scenes carved from hippo teeth, and bemoaned the fact that the hippo were nearly all gone and they could no longer find ivory because the elephants had been locally shot out.

But local subsistence poaching and survival hunting are the least of Mozambique’s conservation problems. The Direcao Nacional de Flora e Fauna Bravia (DNFFB) – the National Directorate of Forests and Wildlife – is hopelessly understaffed and under-resourced, and the biggest conservation problem is the destruction of habitat. (KS – part of the solution is to provide areas where traditional hunters can hunt legally on the edge of protected areas. They need to hunt to survive and will keep out poachers.)

Mozambique’s ancient hardwood forests are being stripped at a terrifying rate. Wherever you go in the central and northern parts of the country – which are home to some of the finest sandveld forests I have seen – there is a constant stream of trucks carrying loads of timber to the port at Beira. Many of them are driven by Chinese men.

The Mail & Guardian recently ran a feature on the Chinese timber miners in Mozambique. They were supplying local peasant farmers with chain saws, then buying the timber from them, thus avoiding having to apply for logging permits.

They interviewed a trader named Huo who exported hardwood trees like rosewood, chanate, ebony, leadwood, panga panga, pau preto and wenge for which he paid between R60 and R100 a tree, but sold for a hundred times as much in China. Huo told the M&G that 120 containers measuring 20 cubic metres each leave Beira for China every week filled with wood.

It is a desperate crisis for a country that is constantly faced by crises. But as long as Mozambique has a legion of police officers, customs officials and other bureaucrats who can be easily bribed to look the other way, the illegal trade will thrive.

• This column was first published in Die Burger.