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Going Undercover With Africa’s Premier Anti-Poaching Unit

Busting open the black-market ivory trade in Malawi and Zambia

In a pink motel room just a few miles from the ZambiaMalawi border in landlocked Southeastern Africa, two European men count stacks of local currency across a floral bedspread: 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 Zambian kwacha, which comes out to roughly $5,000.

Images from the raid, where the Zambian, despite having one hand already cuffed, resists arrest.

A third man watches like a casino pit boss from a plastic armchair, his foot resting on a giant suitcase. He’s a wealthy Zambian with a body builder’s physique, gold jewelry and designer pink polo shirt. He keeps checking his phone and telling the other men to hurry up.

“I lost count again,” one of them, Matthieu, responds in a thick French accent.

All of a sudden, two plainclothes police officers storm through the doors pointing AK-47s in all directions.

Matthieu and his partner Mark, a tall lean Brit, take their cue and jump. Even with one of them on his back and a taser to his chest, the Zambian still lands several punches before slamming into the bathroom sink, knocking it off the wall with his hip. Matthieu’s shirt rips during the scuffle, exposing a giant tattoo of the French Airborne Paratroopers’ emblem over his heart.

“Give up! There’s a whole team outside!” Mark yells.

A policeman fires a warning shot outside, and the Zambian quits resisting.

Police discover two more accomplices in the motel parking lot as they attempt to flee in a silver Corolla. One of them is merely a driver, but the other is Bridget Banda, a well-connected figure in Zambia’s judicial system. The police instantly recognize her from a print-out of her WhatsApp profile photo, taken from the personal account she used to arrange the entire deal with Matthieu over months of correspondence.

Unlike the Zambian, Bridget and her driver don’t resist. In handcuffs, they’re led into the motel room.

Bridget Banda, who is the architect of the ivory deal, pictured with her two accomplices and the 80 pounds of ivory they intended to sell.

Matthieu finally sorts through the giant tarpaulin. One by one, he pulls out the long, tapering objects contained inside — each of which is cream-colored and caked with the rust brown of African soil, blood or both.

“Nine tusks.”

That adds up to about 80 pounds of illegal ivory, which in Hong Kong, the world’s largest ivory market, will fetch nearly $40,000. There, the tusks are polished white and carved into necklaces, combs, alligators, Buddhas, and of course, elephants, before being sold in one of the hundreds of retailers across the city.

“Four and a half pairs. That’s at least five dead elephants,” Mark says.

One of the tusks is smaller than the others.

“A female?”

A police officer shakes his head.

“A younger one.”

Last September, The Great Elephant Census—a research organization funded by Paul G. Allen, the internationally renowned philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft, published the most extensive study of the African elephant to date. The report (a result of 9,700 hours of flight surveys over 18 counties) estimated a loss of 144,000 Savanna elephants in just seven years. Almost a third of the entire population had vaporized due to poaching. One of the nations hit hardest was Malawi, where Matthieu and Mark currently work.

According to the World Bank’s GDP per capita ratings, Malawi is the fifth-poorest nation on the planet. Making matters worse, last year, a global El Niño brought a significant drought to Southern Africa that devastated Malawi’s small agrarian economy, crippled the production of its key export (tobacco) and drove up the price of the staple of its diet (corn). It also meant fewer watering holes in the county’s expansive national parks, condensing the migration of its wildlife.

So not only is poaching a tempting way to make money, it’s far easier than usual, too. In Kasungu National Park, for instance, only one vast watering hole remains in the entire 900-square-mile reserve. Two large elephant families visit it around 11 a.m. every single day.

They’re beyond low-hanging fruit.

It’s alongside this watering hole — in a humble brick and plywood house — where Matthieu lives. When he first moved there in 2012, he could hear gunshots almost every night. The park had been left virtually unguarded for years, and the elephant population — at around 3,000 in 1970 — was down to a mere 42 animals.

His job, like Mark’s, is to reverse this trend. They work as undercover agents in an elite anti-poaching unit under the leadership of former South African Special Forces Commander Mike Labuschagne, a man with a long history of military experience in African conflict zones and a reputation for toughness. In the late 1980s, he fought Cuban forces alongside guerrilla factions in Angola. (“The Cold War wasn’t so cold here,” he says.) Afterward, he contracted for a number of private military operations that targeted illegal gold mines, before a friend suggested he try anti-poaching in 1992.

Mike Labuschagne

“I had to settle down, you know?” he jokes. “Had to think about a family.”

Over the years, Labuschagne ran several of the region’s most successful anti-poaching units, including Operation Safe Haven with the British conservationist Mark Hiley. “He’s obviously tough, but he’s also something of a brilliant thinker,” Hiley says. Evidence of this dichotomy: The words HONOR and DUTY are scrawled across the dagger tattoos on his biceps, but he also can recite entire stanzas of Tennyson from memory.

In 2015, with funding from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a well-established NGO in Cape Cod, Labuschagne created the Wildlife Crimes Investigation Unit, which includes about 20 other full-time officers. He set up shop in Kasungu National Park, recruited its top rangers (including Matthieu) and paired them with a network of former poachers and urban informants. This undercover team targets a link in the illegal wildlife chain that’s generally gone unchallenged: the middle man.

Instrumental in the unit’s success is the leadership of Labuschagne’s longtime lieutenant, Raphael Chiwindo. Originally from a rural part of Malawi, Chiwindo has worked with Labuschagne since 1992, rising from a remote gate guard to a commanding officer and later to a sought-after law enforcement consultant in Africa’s national parks.

Raphael Chiwindo
Chiwindo’s team

In addition to spearheading the training and daily operations of dozens of full-time rangers in Kasungu National Park, Chiwindo often consults on undercover operations.

During one such operation in a busy Malawian marketplace, Matthieu found himself in a car with two suspects and four tusks. He hadn’t expected to get to the contraband so quickly, and there was no back-up team around. He called Chiwindo.

“Mate! I, uh, need a scale. You know… I have some stuff I want to weigh.”

Chiwindo knew exactly what he was saying, and he happened to be running errands nearby, too.

Soon enough, there was a pounding on the window. Thinking on his feet, Chiwindo pretended not to be Matthieu’s friend, but rather a plainclothes policeman.

“I know what this is!” he shouted. “Let me in the vehicle.”

Chiwindo got in and closed the door.

“It’s okay,” Matthieu said to the wide-eyed dealers. “I’ll sort this out.”

“Turn on the car.” Chiwindo ordered. “Let’s go somewhere and settle this, or else I’m going to take you in,” insinuating he’d turn a blind eye for a fee. “I’ll tell you where to go.”

The dealers relaxed.

Matthieu started the engine, crept out of the marketplace, and began following Chiwindo’s directions.

“LEFT! … STRAIGHT-Y! … LEFT! … RIGHT… YES, RIGHT HERE.”

The dealers, smashed between their suitcase and Chiwindo in the back seat, suddenly tensed again when they realized where they were: the parking lot of the local police station.

Much of the unit’s success depends on the thankless work of Malawians like Chiwindo. And the same goes for his counterpart in Zambia, Chewa Ndonyo, who was the commanding officer in the pounce team during the motel raid. In the last year alone, Ndonyo’s house has been attacked and set on fire three different times. Undeterred by the constant threat of retaliation, Ndonyo continues to work three or four leads at any given time.

Rangers Matthieu (right) and Clifford (left) discuss patrol tactics following reports of gunshots near the Zambian border of Kasungu National Park.

In a separate raid, villagers fired on Matthieu with single-action rifles, while another ranger took a rock to the head. “When a poacher kills an elephant,” Matthieu explains, “the whole village benefits. They sell the ivory and dry the meat for everybody in the area, so now they’re the heroes, and we’re the bad guys.”

Like Labuschagne, Matthieu had an extensive military past before working in Malawi. He was a paratrooper for the French Army, working in Chad, Gabon and later, fighting in Afghanistan.

“Part of our success comes from our ability to live with uncertainty,” Labuschagne says.

After booking the three ivory dealers at a Zambian police station, Matthieu and Mark make the three-hour trek back to Kasungu National Park in the 1987 Toyota Land Cruiser. That’s navigating the dark, pothole-lined highway in the middle of the night. They nod to armed policemen at checkpoints, occasionally stopping when flashed to do so, but such low-ranking officers can’t be trusted.

“What are you doing in Zambia?” a policeman demands. “This vehicle is registered in Malawi.”

“We had a meeting in Chipata [a border town of a half million people], and my friend wanted to see the animals in Lukusuzi [a national park]. But we gotta be back home by tomorrow.”

At some point along the way, they call Labuschagne to let him know about their success. A strange mood still prevails, though. A narcotics sting can prevent a batch of drugs from ever hitting its users, but ivory’s different. A bust like this only confirms one thing: There are at least five fewer elephants in the wild.

“It’s everywhere,” Matthieu explains while driving and chain-smoking Pall Mall Reds. “But you can’t be everywhere. We can, you know, at least try to make it harder. Cut off the dealers.”

Within a week, the team recovers an additional two leopard skins, a serval skin, dried elephant meat and about 200 pounds of illegal ivory worth more than $100,000. And within the first few months of existence, the team had already made 152 arrests in Malawi and an additional 36 arrests in cross-border operations with Zambia.

A Malawian police officer (left) with a confiscated leopard skin. The two dealers (right) were arrested after attempting to sell it to an undercover agent in Malawi’s urban capital, Lilongwe.

Still: “We cannot let our successes get ahead of us,” Labuschagne says. “Given how busy we are at the moment, I would say this can’t be more that 1 percent of what’s going on.”

A few weeks after the raid in the pink motel room, Labuschagne receives disheartening news from Zambia. Six lawyers were flown in from the capital, Lusaka, to support the defense of Bridget Banda, her driver and her muscle.

“Bridget is directly related to some pretty influential individuals,” Labuschagne says to the rest of his team during an afternoon briefing in one of the brick cottages in Kasungu. (A month later, Bridget is acquitted of all counts.) Matthieu reminds him that some of the tusks already had police markings on them when they made the bust. Bridget surely got them directly from the judicial system’s evidence stash to sell right back into the market.

Shannon, Labuschagne’s daughter and right-hand woman, quickly moves on to the next item of business. “Lynn Clifford called again about the two elephants that went missing from a game reserve near Salima. She thinks she knows where the poachers live. They saw the snares and meat drying, but they don’t have enough men to make a raid.”

“I think we can lend her help,” Labuschagne says. He then turns to his team: “Can we do it tonight?”

Twelve hours later, Matthieu’s Land Cruiser idles nearby — two poachers in handcuffs in the backseat.