Wildlife crime and Russia’s African connections: old links leading to new problems?
Except they aren’t exactly new problems at all, but the continuation of old ones in new formats.
The UK awareness of the significance of the continuing large scale and very highly organised smuggling of African wildlife products to, typically, China via south east Asia and African hubs such as Nairobi will – hopefully – have been raised by the seizure of 110 kg. of ivory at Heathrow airport in October 2015, as reported by the BBC.
Let us also hope that the wider and deeper aspects are also taken into account. The BBC reports that the ivory was abandoned in baggage from a BA flight from Angola, with final destination being Hannover. That may well not be a coincidence.
German law enforcement has been aware since the 1990s of the significant presence in the Hannover area of German passport-holding Russian speakers: for many, their ancestry was German but subsequent generations had spread across the Soviet Union, with many from Central Asia to where their ancestors had been deported by Stalin. Russian criminal groups have exploited this connection for smuggling cigarettes, drugs and more recently people, as well as prostitution.
Flights are watched – but not all flights, so there is a large and well-organised distribution network, which also has links with Vietnamese groups who lived in East Germany from the 1980s.
Many insiders in the governing elites in the ex-Soviet states, especially Russia, have close links with the KGB’s successors and the still existing GRU, and some were members of the secret services. An example is Igor Sechin of Rosneft, who served as an “interpreter” in Mozambique in the 1980s, his study of Portugese not being an accident and heavily supplemented by his French.
The Soviet and Russian presence in Angola was for longer and on a larger scale than is often believed in the West – this writer has met such persons. The links between national elites in Africa and these persons remain: Mark Galeotti of New York University (NYU), a long-time watcher of the ex-Soviet military, highlights how military groups are not normally subject to border control checks in these countries, nor are their financial operations audited in the normal way (1).
All this makes the recent warnings by Kristopher Carlson and others in a Small Arms Survey report last year (2015) about the means by which military small arms leak to poachers or are used by the militaries themselves very relevant (2).
When combined with the recent increase of ex-Soviet state military personnel in Africa with their large-scale recruitment by South African PMCs for the Nigerian offensive against Boko Haram in Spring 2015, it is certainly time to keep a close watch on the physical and corporate presence of appropriate Russian-speaking groups in the EU where there are plausible links with wildlife looting areas of Africa. They are certainly embedded in Spain and Portugal and in conjunction with Chinese in English-speaking southern and east Africa as well as in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in particular and the greater Congo basin, building on extensive UN reliance on their air transport fleets and helicopters for peace-keeping missions. On the corporate side in the EU, Greece, Cyprus, Austria and the Baltic states appear regularly, with payments often through the UK.
Law enforcers need to look at these people first, and only then for the likely crimes. They will find a lot.
Euan Grant; former HM Customs & Excise’s Strategic Intelligence Analyst investigating the ex – Soviet states between 1998- 2002; he has since worked extensively in those states.
1 : Mark Galeotti’s ‘blog’: https://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/
2 : ‘In the Line of Fire: Elephant and Rhino Poaching in Africa’. http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/A-Yearbook/2015/eng/Small-Arms-Survey-2015-Chapter-01-EN.pdf