DISS caught with a secret ivory stash

18 Jul 2018

A sting operation by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks’ anti-poaching unit has uncovered a secret stash of elephant tusks at a DISS camp in Ngwashe, near Nata village in northern Botswana.

This has added credence to claims that the DISS under former Director General Isaac Kgosi was involved in a rogue diamond and ivory smuggling operation.

Investigations have confirmed that the Department of Wildlife and National Parks which is responsible for keeping records of all ivory storage facilities in Botswana was unaware of the DISS stockpile at Ngwashe until last week.

Botswana is among nine countries including the UK, the US, Uganda and Germany that signed a declaration during African Elephant Summit held in Gaborone in 2013 for the publication and audit of ivory stockpiles

It has further emerged that the DISS could neither provide a chain of custody for the ivory cache nor explain why it kept such a large number of tusks in a warehouse in the bush, in violation of standard procedure.

It is understood that the DISS officer at the scene referred wildlife department officials’ questions to Isaac Kgosi, the former DISS head who was sacked earlier this year.

The wildlife department has allegedly refused to take over the tusks without a proper chain of custody for the inventory which is requisite for them to comply with the provisions of the 2013 African Elephant Summit declaration.

DISS Rogue Operation

The DISS has in the past been accused of running rogue diamond and ivory smuggling operations. The DISS however underwent an abrupt change in leadership after Botswana’s new President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, fired its founding Director-General, Isaac Kgosi, in May this year and replaced him with Brigadier Peter Magosi.

According to a source, the sting operation was supported by senior DISS officials, who have called for reforms at the spy agency.  Kgosi is alleged to have set up an anti-poaching unit parallel to the wildlife department’s unit. Department officials complain that the DISS overstepped its authority and that its anti-poaching outfit “gets in the way” of their operations.

The DIS under former director general was last year caught up in an elephant poaching scandal after three of its members were arrested by the Wildlife Intelligence Unit at a roadblock in Makalamabedi, Boteti Sub District. The DIS had been on the radar of the Wildlife Intelligence Unit for sometime following a tip-off that the intelligence agency had gone rogue and was part of an international diamond and ivory smuggling racket. 

After a long surveillance stake-out, the Wildlife Intelligence Unit allegedly mounted a roadblock in Makalamabedi where they lay in wait for the three agents who were driving from Ngamiland. 

The trio, Martin Disang Marumo a former Wildlife Officer from Tlokweng who was based in Maun, Oaitse Mokgatitswane a former police officer who testified in an assault case against one Tomagano Chabaesele in 2007 and Alex Lopang Mogojwa who joined the DIS from the civilian ranks claimed that they were on an anti-poaching operation, but could not provide a chain of custody for the ivory in their possession.

The agents who were arrested with a huge sports bag containing two sliced elephant tusks allegedly asked to be allowed to phone DIS Director General Isaac Kgosi, but were denied contact with their boss and were handed over to the Botswana Police Service.

Big names, big cover up

There are suspicions that there was a leak in the operation and the DIS boss was tipped off about the arrest because a while later, acting Police Commissioner Bruno Paledi who is now Director General of the Directorate on Corruption and economic Crime (DCEC) allegedly called and instructed that the three poachers be released from police custody.

After Paledi allegedly secured the release of the three DISS agents, the Office of the President moved in and tried to mount a smoke and mirrors operation to conceal the DISS alleged diamond and ivory smuggling rogue operation.

Former DISS Director General, Isaac Kgosi and Permanent Secretary to the President Carter Morupisi met with the Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism Tshekedi Khama at the Office of the President where they tried to persuade the minister to issue a rebuttal against the Sunday Standard exposé.

Tshekedi Khama’s rejoinder was to be the ultimate brushstroke in the carefully planned whitewashing of the DIS scandal and the closing gambit in a series of administrative ruses meant to throw Batswana off the spy agency’s alleged shenanigans. It is understood that Tshekedi Khama refused to play along, insisting that the story was factual.

The meeting between Kgosi, Morupisi and Khama allegedly ended a chapter of manoeuvres to makeover the spy agency’s ivory-gate as a sting operation gone wrong.

As part of the plan, the DISS removed from its armoury at their Block three offices an ivory cache which had been stashed there for two years, and tried to register it with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. Sunday Standard could not establish if the department agreed to register the ivory.

Sunday Standard Investigation turned up a document marked “confidential” dated March 31 detailing the removal of the ivory stash from the DIS vault a day after the arrest of three DIS spies. The secretive ending of the case has sparked speculation that the ivory smuggling ring involved powerful and connected operatives.

Information passed to the Sunday Standard by the Wildlife Intelligence Unit sources suggested that the DIS was smuggling ivory and diamonds out of the country aboard its Pilatus PC-12 aircraft to Lusaka in bags disguised as diplomatic cargo. A Lusaka-based syndicate would then smuggle the contraband out of Zambia to the Tanzanian ports of Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, from where they were be shipped to illicit markets in Asia.

Kgosi Mum

Kgosi this week refused to comment on the claims relating to the Ngwashe stockpile, saying he no longer worked for government. “Go and ask relevant authorities,” he said.

When he took over the DISS Magosi publicly promised to change the DISS’s “old culture” of impunity. Magosi confirmed this week that the agency has a storeroom full of elephant tusks at its Ngwashe camp, but insisted that there was nothing unusual about this.

“Sometimes elephants just die,” he said. Under a standing arrangement, the DISS anti-poaching unit often picked up tusks while on patrol in the bush, transported them to the Ngwashe camp and made arrangements for game rangers falling under the wildlife department to collect them.

“They are recorded on a daily basis and we report any new finds to DISS headquarters. When the time is right we hand over the tusks to the department of wildlife and record the transfer.”

Both the department of wildlife and the DISS refused to make available the guidelines applied in such cases.

When INK put it to him that the Department of Wildlife and National Parks was not aware of the stockpile until last week, Magosi suggested that INK might have asked the wrong officials. 

He said he had already notified the Department of Wildlife about the stockpile and assured them that the tusks will be transferred to them. He declined to reveal the quantity of ivory in the DISS’s possession.

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Thato Raphaka, however denied Magosi’s claims. Raphaka said he was not aware that the DISS has a storeroom full of elephant tusks at its camp in the wilds of northern Botswana, and that is not how the matter is normally dealt with.

The ministry is responsible for keeping records of all ivory storage facilities in Botswana.

“While that area [of the Ngwashe camp] is under the DISS,” he said, “they have a responsibility to notify us every time they find such things as elephant tusks and hand them over, which is the procedure.

“We do not know anything about [the stockpile] and I am sure we would have been briefed about it … It is not procedure to keep such a large stock of elephant tusks and not report on it.”

He noted the department regularly checks with the DISS to see if they have anything for them. “There is no smoke without fire,” Thato said. “Where we feel there is an issue, we will always address it.”

According to the Wildlife Conservation and National Parks Act penalties for possession of rhino horn attracts a fine of P100 000 and 15 years imprisonment while penalty for possession of ivory attracts a fine of P50 000 and 10 years in jail.

The DISS was seen as the personal fiefdom of Kgosi, who was formerly the private secretary of Ian Khama and enjoyed his protection over a 10-year period as the agency’s head.

Kgosi established the DISS in 2008 with a vague mandate and without proper channels of accountability.