Mansions are springing up in the poverty-stricken villages lying along the border of South Africa and Mozambique.

With modern finishes, they stand among the humble homes of villagers who often have no access to water.

Cars stolen from South Africa whizz by, sometimes driven by boys as young as 16 years.

Music, women, drinking.

It’s the rhino war zone – villages that lie along the border between South Africa and Mozambique – where warlords rule with impunity and young villagers are lured into poaching by wads of cash.

“Then picture that a local rhino warlord – who has just had millions of meticai, the currency in Mozambique, deposited into his account because of a successful poaching effort – slaughters several cattle to celebrate his windfall and gives the people in the village food to eat, and at the celebration are guards and supposed anti-poaching teams,” said Kingsley Holgate, explorer and humanitarian, recalling what he had seen in his latest expedition, the Izintaba Zobombo Expedition.

The expedition is at the tail end of its three-month journey, and has taken Holgate and his team along the Lebombo Mountain range from near Punda Maria in the north of the Kruger National Park to the historic Ghost Mountain Inn in Mkuze, northern KwaZulu-Natal.

The expedition passed through South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland, with the team meeting villagers, speaking to community leaders and conservationists – people at the coalface of the rhino poaching epidemic.

The expedition is backed by Project Rhino KZN, an association of organisations working to combat rhino poaching by combining resources and campaigns.

Soccer games, school visits, cyclists, art competitions and plays have all been part of the expedition’s activities to engage communities about rhino poaching.

Up until the end of last month, 33 rhinos had been poached in KZN and 24 people arrested for suspected poaching.

Since the beginning of this year, 367 rhinos have been poached in South Africa. Last year, 668 rhinos were killed.

Holgate said learning how the syndicates operated in the villages had been an eye-opener. Villagers knew the poachers by name and the vehicles they drove, and even knew when a horn was passing through the village.

“It is shocking, the poachers travel in vehicles stolen in South Africa, and move with impunity,” said Holgate.

He said 30 game rangers from the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique were in jail awaiting trial for being involved in rhino poaching.

Private game concessions struggled to get firearm licences for their anti-poaching units.

“In fact, some are armed only with pepper spray and a radio,” said Holgate.

“It is so bad that when the rhinos move from South Africa into Mozambique within the park, their average lifespan is only 48 hours. Knowing this, the rangers try to herd the rhinos back into South Africa, but as they are doing this, remember only armed with pepper spray, the poachers are coming from behind armed with AK-47s and axes, it is so dangerous, but there are brave rangers out there,” said Holgate.

In another frightening example of how poachers were laying claim to the area, Holgate said one of the poachers, well known to the community, was building a “massive tourist lodge” on the outskirts of the town of Massangiri.

“But what happens when there are no animals in the area, what will tourists see then? The poachers fail to see that,” said Holgate.

One poacher drives an expensive Land Cruiser, and places cooldrink crates of different colours on the roof rack before driving through town. The colour is a code for the young poachers to go to a particular place in moonlight to get ready for poaching.

“It’s an entire network operating, and it is being allowed to happen because no real action is being taken against the poachers,” said Holgate.

The town of Chokwe, which is considered to be the capital city of stolen cars in Mozambique – cars from South Africa – is “like the Wild West”.

“Kids are driving stolen cars, there is utter lawlessness, the expedition team found no roadblocks on the route from Massangiri to the EN1, to check vehicles coming from the border fence – it creates a poaching paradise,” said Holgate.

In another incident while the team were out, R1 million allegedly changed hands, passing to a man in a village who poached rhino horns.

“There are no other work opportunities in these villages, everything is a struggle, and then to have this kind of money, can you imagine how these men cannot help but be lured into poaching?” said Holgate.

He said it was ironic that a picture of the rhino continued to be used on Mozambique’s 20 meticai note and South Africa’s R10 note.

“It’s greed for money that’s fuelling the poaching, but it’s also the greed from south-east Asia that is causing this to happen. There is so much that needs to be done, and we have been trying to reach the children, talk to the mothers and the village leaders, and hopefully we can change something.”

Saturday Star