Another in the series of stories via Ayesha Cantor regarding the continuing rhino crisis in South Africa.
Each week Rhino Friday (ie. Ayesha Cantor) provides news, interviews and stories about rhino. We include some in their entirety as we do this interview about frustrating low conviction rates when it comes to wildlife related crimes in South Africa.
442+ Rhino poached in South Africa so far this year
Why Conviction Rates for Wildlife Crimes are so Low
Since 2010, there have been at least 1172 individuals arrested for rhino poaching related crimes.
2010 – 165
2011 – 232
2012 – 267
2013 – 343
2014 – 165
TOTAL = 1172
We are all horrified by the daily rising poaching tally feeling ever more helpless.
We cannot even begin to imagine how those who are physically fighting this – on the ground, must feel having braved the worst kind of danger, risking their lives including those of their families, on many occasions.
‘’ Two poachers caught and arrested, one got away’’ are the headlines we read on a regular basis. Unbelievably what we seldom hear, is that these criminals have been brought to book and convicted with a stiff sentence.
We asked a few questions of someone in the legal field who has hands on experience on matters regarding wildlife crimes but would prefer to remain anonymous ….
Q. If one compared the number of successful convictions (rhino related crimes) with the number of crimes reported on an annual basis, the figures are not so good. In your opinion, why is the conviction rate of alleged rhino poachers so low ?
A. This is a common misinterpretation of the statistics that are bandied around countrywide.
The problem lies with the detection rates of rhino crimes and not the conviction rates. I am only aware of one acquittal in a rhino case in the recent past ( State versus Coena Smith).
It is estimated that only 3-5% of the poaching incidents are solved. Therefore many more rhinos die where the perpetrators are not apprehended.
It is very important to understand the difference between detection and conviction. Another problem is that criminal cases take long to finalise but I can assure you that those cases that go to court are in 99% prosecuted with success.
Q. For those of us who follow this scourge closely, it’s quite distressing to hear that alleged poachers are seemingly so easily granted bail, and will more than likely continue with their poaching activities. Why is bail granted and why especially to repeat offenders ?
A. Bail should not be granted to repeat offenders in principle.
Rhino poaching is currently treated as less serious since it is not listed and therefore the Criminal Procedure Act provides that the accused is entitled to be released. Also it is important to remember that an accused is considered innocent until proven guilty and bail refusal should not be used as a method to punish the criminal before he has been convicted. .
If the accused has permanent property in the country and is not a proven flight risk then he is likely to be released.
Q. That rhino poaching is STILL considered ‘less serious’’ is unbelievable to hear, what needs to happened to upgrade the crime to ‘Very Serious’ ?
A. Rhino poaching is not an offence that is listed in Schedule 5 or 6 of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977.
Such offences (Schedule 5 and 6) place a higher onus on the accused to prove that the interest of justice permits his release or that there are exceptional circumstances that permit his release.
The legislature needs to increase rhino poaching to a Schedule 5 offence to strengthen our hand in bail applications.
Q. The earlier environmental GREEN COURTS (est 2003 ) had much success.
In your opinion, would reinstating such a court system have a positive effect on rhino poaching ?
A. This debate has gone full circle and in light of the fact that our courts are inundated with other serious offences it is not likely that eco courts will ever be implemented. There is much made of the success of earlier GREEN COURTS and I personally think that is blown out of proportion. There was in actual fact only one green court that I am aware of and that was at Hermanus. This court mostly dealt with abalone offences.
On the other hand it would be ideal to have GREEN COURTS where the magistrate’s actually want to do these types of cases and have the passion and understanding of these complex matters.
It would definitely help if there were designated courts to deal exclusively with green cases.
Q. Would you say that the sentences that have been meted out fit the crime ?
A. We feel that sentences imposed are too lenient and this does not serve as a deterrent for would be offenders.
The criminals know that in crimes involving endangered species there is a low risk of detection and high level of income involved therefore making it an attractive option to commit these crimes.
Q. What, in your opinon, is one of the greatest impediments in bringing these criminals to book ?
A. A great impediment is and will always be corruption amongst law enforcement officials including nature conservation officers who aid and abet the criminals in obtaining permits etc.
There are many wolves in sheeps clothing in this business.
Q. Is there anything else you would like us to know ?
A. The vital cog in the wheel is that magistrates must get on board and deal with all environmental cases with the seriousness it deserves. It is not just about rhino poaching but all the other types of crimes against the environment. We feel also that sentences imposed are too lenient and this does not serve as a deterrent for would be offenders. The criminals know that in crimes involving endangered species there is a low risk of detection and high level of income involved therefore making it an attractive option to commit these crimes.
For further reading – ‘’Conviction rates an unreliable benchmark of NPA success ‘’ by Julian Rademeyer of Africacheck
Image by Klause Tiedge
Contributed by Ayesha Cantor