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How SA can lose the second rhino war

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As South Africa continues to lose rhinos in the poaching war, it seems that the government is failing those fighting it.

Although there has been some success in protecting rhinos in the Kruger National Park, rhino poaching middlemen and kingpins continue to operate with impunity in South Africa as the country fails to successfully prosecute those arrested for high level involvement in rhino crimes.

The lifting of the 2009 moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn – owing to a failure in following correct public participation procedures – not only sends confusing messages to rhino horn consuming nations but raises alarm signals regarding the country’s control of the situation. 

While Minister for Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Edna Molewa, announced successful conviction rates of rhino poachers (88% in 2015 and 78% in 2016),  this rate actually only takes into account the cases that went to trial and saw a verdict, painting an inaccurate picture of the true situation. Doing the sums correctly shows that the conviction percentage actually stands at “a pitiful 15%” of those arrested. Senior state advocate, Isabet Erwee,  referring to the Skukuza Magistrates’ Court has said that, “A total of 25 to 30 matters is on that court roll every Wednesday,” and that, “some days, we have more than 50 accused in the dock.”

“The frustration is that there are NGOs who are working specifically in terms of conservation and rhino issues, providing a lot of resources to actually do the work for them (prosecutors), up to the point where it literally just has to go to court,” says Lise-Marie Greeff-Villet, Communications Coordinator at Peace Parks Foundation. “They’ve been given everything, they’ve been given the investigators… that’s one of the frustrations.”

International NGO WildAid has released a new report citing repeated examples of case dismissals, postponements, witness intimidation, leniency, plea bargains and paltry fines, with even repeat offenders walking free. What is most alarming is that these offenders are often associated with the professional hunting, game farming and veterinary industries. “I’m aware of cases now that are still open that have been going for at least 18 months to two years, where there is a clear documented evidence chain implicating South Africans and no action has been taken,” says Peter Knights, CEO of demand-reduction focussed organisation WildAid.

The report also suggests that law enforcement officials failed to detect exploitation of the trophy hunting loophole for three years, loosing more than 200 white rhino trophies during this time. And then just last year, a Vietnamese hunter was allowed to shoot a white rhino with an outfit that has been implicated in “thousands of criminal charges.”

“It’s about political will,” states Knights. “For years we have seen one South African elite after another evade justice, despite orchestrating the killing of rhinos and the trafficking of their horns. The corruption, incompetence, and leniency in the system must not be allowed to continue. Organised crime is stopped by taking out the leaders, not just the foot soldiers,” he says.

Ross Purdon of the Democratic Alliance agrees. “Political will is everything. You’ve got the State Security Minister, Mahlobo, implicated – he’s meant to be in charge of our safety and security – this is the government we are dealing with. That’s the fact.”

Mahlobo was implicated after an Al Jazeera report showed a Chinese national linked to rhino horn smuggling bragging on camera about his relationship with the minister, and despite the DA calling for an investigation into the matter, no progress has been made.

“One of the other problems is this connection between the private sector and regulations,” says report author Susie Watts. An article by Bryan Christy, published in National Geographic, illustrates her point. In this article, Dawie Groenewald, who has over 1,700 rhino related charges currently against him, actually tells the reporter that while other names were on the court cases to overturn the moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn trade, he was the one behind it.

According to the WildAid report, intelligence generated from sophisticated investigations implicating South African police officers, as well as government officials from South Africa and Mozambique, has not been acted upon.

Despite repeated assurances from government, South Africa has to date failed to  sign an Implementation Agreement based on the Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries signed on the 17th of April 2014. “The biggest problem right now is this lack of will to take out the big guys,” says Mr Knight.

Speaking about a private investigation company working in the Kruger National Park Purdon reiterated this point, “When they started getting close to the high levels, their contract was terminated.”

“There are three things which we have to be very, very aware of,” says renowned writer and conservationist Ian McCallum. “It’s a terrible triad of criminality, financial opportunism and the amazing human indifference and defeatism in terms of conservation.”

Commenting on the failure to convict the middlemen and kingpins associated with rhino poaching, the words of environmental attorney Cormac Cullinan, sum it up: “The idea of Africa without these magnificent creatures is appalling.  Leaving the fate of rhinos in the hands of those who trade their body parts is tantamount to facilitating genocide. The message must be unequivocal – killing rhinos and trading in horn is a crime and those involved will be pursued to the ends of the Earth. Everyone has a duty to defend the rights of these ancient Africans to live wild – if we fail them we fail humanity”.

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