JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Two alleged elephant poachers in Mozambique escaped from a police station while awaiting trial, undermining efforts to implement a new anti-poaching law in the southern African country, a conservation group said this week.
Authorities were investigating how the two suspects, Paolo Nyenje and Antonio Bernardo, were able on Oct. 27 to slip out of the Mecula police station in Niassa National Reserve, a vast wildlife area in northern Mozambique.
The suspects, sought for years before their arrest in September, may have crossed the border into Tanzania to seek refuge, said Alastair Nelson, head of the Mozambique program for the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society. The group manages the Niassa reserve with the Mozambican government.
Nyenje and Bernardo had three assault rifles and two hunting rifles when they were arrested, according to Nelson.
The pair escaped shortly before their planned transfer for trial in Lichinga, capital of Niassa province, Nelson said in an email to The Associated Press. Citing Mozambican officials, he said the prisoners asked at night to be taken to the toilet, where they escaped through a small window.
"We are sad for that and hope that the police will look for the poachers and bring them back to justice," Bartolomeu Soto, a senior conservation official in Mozambique, wrote in an email.
Mozambique recently stiffened anti-poaching legislation after facing international criticism for lackluster conservation efforts. Anyone who illegally kills an animal of a protected species can be jailed for eight to 12 years.
Nelson said the escape of the two poaching suspects "makes a mockery" of Mozambique's new law, and makes perpetrators "feel that they're kind of untouchable."
Poachers have annually killed tens of thousands of elephants across Africa as demand for ivory surges in Asia, primarily China. At least 1,000 elephants have been slaughtered in Niassa reserve this year, the Wildlife Conservation Society said.