The smoke and mirrors battle to save the rhino
By Jamie Joseph | Saving the Wild
In 2014, in the wake of relentless slaughter, South Africa elevated rhino poaching to a National Priority Crime. Action is proof, words are pretend, and the government is pretending, while more than 8000 rhinos have been slain for a horn that nobody needs.
THE BIGGEST BUST OF ILLEGAL RHINO HORN
According to the Anti-Smuggling Bureau of Xiamen Customs, in June of this year a monumental 250 kilograms of rhino horn was seized in Chinese waters. To the best of our knowledge, this cross-border seizure is the biggest illegal rhino horn confiscation ever in this bloody decade-long war on poaching.
The press in South Africa are oblivious to this historic haul, most likely because the state has chosen to keep this seizure out of its press releases. After many months of waiting in the wings, Saving the Wild has made the decision to insert this information into the public domain. There are numerous concerns, but a primary concern is that the government has not renewed the contract for RhODIS. A powerful tool in forensic prosecution, RhODIS contains more than 20 000 rhino horn samples from both living and dead rhinos, including stockpile horns.
Taking a lesson from the past, in 2014 a stockpile 112 pieces of rhino horn (80kg) were stolen out of a South African provincial park safe in Mpumalanga, in what was thought to be – back then – the largest rhino horn heist in history. Suspected by police as an inside job, the horns were never recovered.
GAMBLING ON EXTINCTION
The international trade in rhino horns has been banned since 1977, and yet in April 2017 a court ruling opened the way for the domestic trade in South Africa to begin again. Considering Saving the Wild’s track record exposing corruption enabling rhino poaching and pursuing high level targets, we are in an informed position to speak truth to power. A government that is riddled with corruption does not have the credentials to gamble on extinction and the future of our natural heritage.
More than two million South Africans are directly dependent on the natural environment for their income, and so it is not just an iconic species in demise, it is the downfall of an economy, and the uprising of poverty and conflict.
On April 14, Hawks Police arrested Clive Melville and Petrus Steyn in possession of 167 rhino horns after stopping and searching a vehicle in the North West province. According to the High Priority Crime Unit, the massive haul of rhino horns was destined for the black markets of Southeast Asia. The horns originally belonged to John Hume, rhino breeder and ardent rhino horn trade advocate who possesses the largest privately-owned herd of rhino in South Africa. The April bust represents the single largest seizure of rhino horn made in South Africa since the poaching crisis first hit the country in 2008.
“It also demonstrates how South Africa’s domestic rhino horn regulatory framework can be exploited to enable international rhino horn trafficking,” says Taylor Tench, Policy Analyst for the Environmental Investigation Agency in Washington DC.
It has already been proven through the ivory trade that a legal trade will always provide a cover for the illegal trade. The legal trade in ivory resulted in a surge in demand for ivory and elephant poaching skyrocketed as a result. And yet how can we not at least empathize with private rhino owners in South Africa willing to have a go at trade, because, they lament, nothing else has worked! They are financially drained and hanging on by a very thin thread. Over a billion rand has collectively been spent by the private sector trying to protect their remaining rhinos. These are desperate times. I know some of these rhino owners, and I have a deep appreciation for their contribution to conservation over the decades. I have stood with them, beside their butchered animals, and I have shared their pain.
READ: Corruption in the courtroom: A sordid tale of sex, gambling, poachers and payoffs
JOIN THE FIGHT AGAINST CORRUPTION
Saving the Wild’s crusade against corruption began with a meeting between myself and private rhino protectors. They said to me:
“We can have all the weapons, all the technology, and all the soldiers in the world. But if we lose the war on corruption, we lose the war on everything.”
“I’ll do it,” I said, naïve to the castle of walls I would have to knock down. “I’ll take on the kingpins. I’ll take on the corruption.”
Saving the Wild had to grow up hard and fast and show courage under fire. We went from storytelling and codas of hope, to intel driven operations and a new narrative that unearthed the underworld. One kingpin arrested, another finally standing trial, and a crooked cabal of justice officials brought to their knees. Four years later we’re still punching above our weight, but there is so much more that needs to be done.
The number one factor enabling rhino poaching is corruption – and that is the big bully no one is willing to go ten rounds with. Our annual budget is pocket change to large environmental organizations. With their international tank of funding, they could ringfence a fierce million dollars for intel driven investigations and kick the hell out of organized crime. And the rhino poaching death toll would be considerably less.
Hard hitting investigative journalism also needs to be funded. The last expose to come out documenting entrenched corruption in the rhino crisis was the article by Sam Sole more than a year ago: Corruption in the courtroom: A sordid tale of sex, gambling, poachers and payoffs. This was the follow up after BBC released the documentary ’Rhinos: Killing and Corruption’ the month prior, elevating our work to a global audience.
We are not trying to underplay the soul sucking vampire that follows our every move. Just one current example; right now there is a police officer pursuing me alongside a thug whose charge sheet reads like a hitman. Numerous counts of murder in recent years, and he never gets convicted. But this is what we sign up for; life or death, survival or extinction. And if the rangers are out there every day risking their lives, the very least Saving the Wild can do is honour them with justice.
If organizations joined forces, the money spent fighting corruption would be a fraction of the bottomless pit of donor money being spent on a war that cannot be won if we are not willing to do that which has never been done before. From KwaZulu Natal (KZN) to Kruger, the law would be acting as a deterrent by now, there would be a minimum mandatory sentence for rhino poaching, and the kingpins would be locked up in a cage where they belong – instead of out on bail playing the system and sending in their gangs to the killing fields.
Chinese actress Li Bingbing appears in a WildAid Nail Biters billboard in Chongqing, China.
ASIA – THE END OF THE LINE
Ultimately, the end of the line is China and Vietnam, where the demand is, but we still have to hold the thin green line in Africa. Prices for rhino horn on the black market are declining, and the demand is shifting from hocus pocus medicine to status symbols. Demand reduction efforts are working, but they are being overshadowed by mixed messaging and trade squabbling. We are dealing with keratin, the stuff in fingernails; it’s only a matter of time before the wealthy elite in Asia come to grips with just how stupid and horrific their lust for rhino horn really is. And global public awareness campaigns, such as those by WildAid, is helping to tip the scales of sensibility.
On the ground in South Africa, from the previous Minister of State Security being linked to a Chinese rhino trafficker, to a police officer allegedly stealing rhino horns from poachers, investigations disappear into the ether, and magistrates claim the good cops fabricated the crime, acquitting the accused of all charges.
Photo credit: Tom Svensson
THE INVISIBLE WAR ON HEROES
The most effective rangers and rhino cops in the crisis continue to be harassed if they pursue high level targets or expose corruption. It’s a fatal game of deflection where our heroes are suspended, fired, or tormented to the point that they give up, clearing the path for poaching syndicates to infiltrate.
This is a war within a war, and trenches of unspeakable suffering.
In 2017, Saving the Wild set up a legal fund to support our men on the frontline in Zululand. Anti poaching officers were being charged with kidnapping for delivering poachers to a police station, while dockets involving arrests of poachers continued to disappear, and poaching suspects were released the day after arrest with no reasonable explanation. We have a very thick file of correspondence between our legal representatives, the National Prosecuting Authority and South African Police Services (SAPS), who continue to brush off our queries and try wear us down.
The inconvenient truth is that there is never any evidence to criminally prosecute. Deflect and destabilize is the goal – anything to stop the best of the best from saving rhinos.
KRUGER IN FREEFALL
This is the ominous cloud of suspicion now descending on Kruger National Park. Saving the Wild assisted the Hawks Police with the June arrest last year of Petros Mabuza aka “Mr Big”, the alleged kingpin of Kruger. I was spending a lot more time in ground zero, joining the dots from Skukuza courthouse inside the park, to the rhino mafia in the town of Hazyview a one hour drive away. And so it came as no surprise when the news broke last week that senior Kruger ranger Don English had been suspended. These traitor rangers who claim Don assaulted them, it is their song, and their puppet masters are the rhino poaching syndicate bosses who have been targeting Don both publicly and behind closed doors.
Don English is so much more than a phenomenal ranger who has dedicated his life to conservation. He is fluent in Shangaan and a master of intelligence. Most of the poachers who infiltrate Kruger do so because they have inside information. Don is critical to fighting organized crime and rooting out corruption. It’s bordering on criminal that both the alleged Kruger kingpins got bail last year when they were already out on bail for rhino related crimes, but the loss of Don English could derail many years fighting the syndicates, with High Court trials pending next year. And with him currently out of the field, Kruger is right now being smashed by the syndicates.
Running parallel to the suspension on Don English is the imminent decision to close Skukuza court – a conscious action that will put the lives of many rangers in danger, forcing them to travel vast distances and become vulnerable to assassinations. Skukuza Regional Court was once South Africa’s biggest success story in the fight against poachers, with a 99% conviction rate, and up until recently a 100 percent success rate in opposing bail. With the loss of Skukuza court, Kruger is now in free fall, going the same way Zululand went with shamefully low conviction rates and poachers calling the shots.
Elise Serfontein (Stop Rhino Poaching) has launched a petition to try save Skukuza Court, in what is being described as a “sinister, well strategized attack underway”. More than 92 000 people have signed so far.
Most concerning is that SANParks appointed an independent consultant to handle the investigation into Don English, none other than advocate Boyce Mkhize, the Mpumalanga parastatal boss who pocketed a R4.4m golden handshake in 2015, this despite an avalanche of corruption allegations levelled against him, and backed up with hard figures in the audit report. The report makes a number of findings against Mkhize, including that he personally incurred about 25.8 million rand of irregular expenditure.
BLOOD RHINO BLACKLIST
At present time, Saving the Wild is laser focused on two pending matters in the province of KwaZulu Natal (KZN): The trial of accused rhino horn dealer Dumisani Gwala, a trial which continues to move at a glacial pace. And the pending arrest of KZN corrupt justice officials, aka our ‘Blood Rhino Blacklist’. These two matters are interlinked.
It is the breach of the final line of defence – the judiciary – that is absolute proof of a government that has failed.
Blood Rhino Blacklist: Timeline.
1. Dumisani Gwala was arrested in December 2014 for attempted murder of a police officer and dealing in rhino horn. At the time of his arrest, according to a spokesperson for the police operation, about 80% of the rhino horns in the KwaZulu Natal province were going through his hands.
2. In January 2016, Saving the Wild began exposing corruption in the Zululand courts we found to be allegedly linked to ‘The Gwala Syndicate’.
3. In October 2017, Saving the Wild published the ‘Blood Rhino Blacklist’, an alleged KZN syndicate of magistrates and lawyers who had for many years been taking bribes not only on rhino poaching cases, but also crimes against humanity.
4. In October 2018, KZN Regional Court President Eric Nzimande was provisionally suspended by South Africa’s Ministry of Justice.
CLICK TO OPEN DELAY TACTICS IN PDF FORMAT – AN EXTRACT FROM TRIAL PROCEEDINGS TRANSCRIBED BY SAVING THE WILD LEGAL WATCHING BRIEFS
On April 24th of this year, the trial of Dumisani Gwala, the alleged kingpin of Zululand, finally began at Mtubatuba Court after more than four years of delay tactics, as described by the state’s prosecutorial team and transcribed by Saving the Wild legal watching briefs. Now more than six months since trial began, the first witness is yet to be cross examined. This is due to the unscrupulous defence – Mr Z.W. Ngwenya and Miss Mpume Linda – devising further more absurd reasons to delay.
Saving the Wild exposed previous magistrates for allegedly taking bribes to ensure Gwala never sees the inside of a jail cell, and whilst the current magistrate appears infuriated by the delays, the defence continues to make a mockery of her court. With so much intimidation, including death threats against the state, it has become clear that the current magistrate needs support from a higher level if this trial is ever to be completed in a timely manner – justice delayed is justice denied.
Rewind the clock to January 30, 2018 when Saving the Wild received this email from the Magistrates Commission after two years of assisting in their investigation:
The crux of the matter is that all these magistrates (and some others) have particular interactions with Mr Ngwenya and that interrelated activities may provide supportive evidence of possible unbecoming and even criminal activities.
Four years since the investigation began, and no disciplinary action has been taken yet. Magistrates Saving the Wild exposed have been disempowered by not being reappointed, but we are not willing to settle by presenting this compromise to the child who was raped, or the ranger who risked his life apprehending a poacher.
Tax payer money continues to cough up for suspended KZN Court President Eric Nzimande, who was removed from office by the Ministry of Justice more than a year ago:
“It is alleged, amongst others, that Mr Nzimande on various occasions approached the Deputy Minister recommending the acting appointment of a number of attorneys for them to act in the Regional Courts within his Regional Division and, in turn, received numerous payments from these attorneys. It is also alleged that Mr Nzimande wrongfully victimized and or sexually harassed, a female acting Regional Magistrate.”
-Ministry of Justice, October 8, 2018
CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
Front page news of the Sunday Times this week: Lenient rulings shocker! KZN magistrate fails child rape victims
KwaZulu-Natal magistrate Kholeka Bodlani let a child rapist walk free, labelled a man convicted of raping his 11-year-old daughter a “loving father”, and allegedly sent a would-be child killer home. What the article fails to mention is that it was Nzimande who pushed for Bodlani’s appointment. The ‘Blood Rhino Blacklist’ has morphed into a vile and menacing (currently undisclosed) dossier documenting horrific crimes against humanity.
Saving the Wild has far more faith in the police investigation than the Magistrates Commission, as the old boys club continues to prove with their apathy that they have no intention of completing their investigation. Or, even worse, their colleagues from the Zuma regime will be let off the hook.
LET JUSTICE BE DONE
The courtrooms in KwaZulu Natal have thrived for many years on bribe money and bottles of Hennessey. If the powers that be have any intention of proving to the world they are capable of honouring the victims, the rangers, the rhino cops, and save the rhino, they need to start firing, arresting and convicting members of state with blood on their hands.
It is the final countdown before dark forces will try to derail the police investigation into court corruption, and then Saving the Wild will once again go to battle. Justice cannot change the past. But justice can save the future.