Why Did The Donkey Get A Passport Nestled within the Madabe communal lands in southern Zimbabwe, Dip 27 appears to be an unremarkable rural service center to newcomers. However, for locals, it hides a sprawling cross-border criminal operation that rakes in millions by trafficking ivory, illegal immigrants, contraband cigarettes, marijuana, and, more recently, stolen donkeys to and from Botswana.
This shadowy enterprise operates with ease due to its unfettered access to the vast, unfenced Botswana border just 7km to the west and a highway connection to Plumtree town 40 minutes to the north. By day, trucks from Harare and Maputo transport contraband cigarettes and liquor. As the sun sets, baggage carriers transport goods across the dry Ramogkwebana River into Botswana for fees ranging from P100 (R145) to P1,000 (R1,450) per crossing, depending on the quantity and associated risks.
Oxpeckers, during an undercover operation as a stranded motorist at Dip 27
Encountered a rustler who requested anonymity. He disclosed that he had been an “money changer” (illegal foreign currency dealer) at Plumtree border post until its closure due to COVID-19 in March.
The border closure and subsequent prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes in Botswana created new lucrative opportunities in Madabe for the smuggling of these products. Mozambicans allegedly use this pipeline to smuggle elephant tusks to Chinese clients in Francistown, Botswana. Meanwhile, smuggling syndicates from Harare and Bulawayo traffic marijuana, alcohol, and cigarettes to Botswana and South Africa.
Investigations by Oxpeckers revealed that the individuals posing as Mozambicans might actually be Zimbabweans working for a well-connected Harare-based syndicate. This syndicate has operated discreetly for years, quietly trafficking ivory and live pangolins to unidentified Chinese buyers in Francistown. They reportedly use government vehicles to transport tusks from Harare to Plumtree.
Police sources stationed at the border
Post reported that they have previously arrested these traffickers, but they often secure bail, disappear, and evade prosecution. An example cited involved a smuggler arrested in February 2019 while attempting to smuggle seven elephant tusks across the border, concealed in various compartments of a BMW vehicle. Although he presented Mozambican papers, further investigation revealed he was a Zimbabwean from Harare.
On his phone, authorities discovered contact details and calls made to a Botswana landline, later identified as a Chinese-owned shop at China Mall in Francistown. As efforts were underway to collaborate with Botswana police for a sting operation, the suspect was ordered to appear in court once and was subsequently granted bail. He promptly returned to Harare, and the case files, along with all evidence, were handed over, halting the investigation. The matter was transferred to Interpol.
Donkey smugglers on the Botswana side of the border are primarily locals from nearby villages, while the masterminds of these smuggling syndicates are mainly Zimbabwean. In both countries, donkeys are used for plowing, transportation, and essential tasks.
One alleged kingpin of a cross-border donkey rustling syndicate in Nxele
A Zimbabwean border village, acknowledged the Zimbabwean connection to the cross-border donkey skin trade. He stated that donkeys are in high demand because the Chinese-owned abattoir in Francistown struggles to meet its weekly requirement of 100 donkeys from Botswana. To fill this gap, Zimbabwean syndicates steal donkeys from Botswana to exchange them for stolen stock, which is then delivered to the abattoir.
On the Zimbabwean side, donkeys are priced between US$20 and US$30. In contrast, due to their scarcity in Botswana, prices across the border have more than doubled, from P200 in 2017 to P500.
Efforts to obtain comments from the Zimbabwe Republic Police were unsuccessful. The Department of Veterinary Services in Zimbabwe acknowledged rampant cross-border movements of donkeys due to theft and straying between the two countries.
Animal welfare organizations in Botswana suspect that the smuggled donkeys end up at the Bo Chang abattoir in Francistown. Bo Chang exports donkey meat and hides to China, where the skins are used for ejiao, a traditional medicine marketed as having life-extending, anti-ageing, and aphrodisiac qualities. Bo Chang Group, one of the companies granted operating licenses, resumed its operations in October 2019 after the temporary suspension of licenses due to inhumane treatment of donkeys and an inadequate waste disposal system.
Donkey theft and smuggling across the border are intensifying, with stolen donkeys often disappearing in Botswana. Smugglers exploit various loopholes, from collapsed border fences to corruption among border police.
Plumtree is not the sole hotbed of cross-border donkey theft with links to the Bo Chang abattoir; similar activities are reported in Gwanda South, located approximately 200km away. In Kafusi, Rustlers Gorge, and Shanyaugwe, cattle and donkey rustling syndicates extend their reach into Botswana.
Despite community efforts to counter these crimes
They continue to escalate, with the stolen animals often vanishing into Botswana. A lack of fences, signposts, and adequate border controls contribute to the ease of smuggling.