Cape Town - The highest penalty ever imposed in South Africa for the illegal possession of ivory was handed down in the Khayelitsha Magistrate’s Court on Friday when a man was sentenced 10 years’ jail and a R5 million fine for possessing one ton of poached elephant tusks.
Cheng Jie Liang was told three years of his jail sentence would be suspended - provided he pay the R5m fine within a year.
Observers say the severity of the fine is a reflection of the courts recognising that, although elephant poaching occurs outside South Africa, the courts still regard ivory smuggling a serious a crime.
Liang, a Chinese national who has been living in South Africa since 2003, was sentenced to a further two years’ jail for the illegal possession of abalone.
The court heard he was probably part of an international ivory smuggling syndicate - “nearly at the top” - working as a courier and exporter. The ivory was worth R21m.
Liang, whose wife and baby live in China, was arrested in September 2012 in Milnerton, where the ivory was stored in two units at Storage Spot. The nerve cavities of some of the tusks were still moist with blood and tissue.
The stash included 67 tusk tips, indicating 34 elephants had been killed.
The court heard that wildlife trafficking was one of the five largest illegal activities in the world, ranking fourth after drugs, weapons and human trafficking.
The illegal wildlife trade was estimated to be worth about $23 billion (R246bn) a year, and the ivory trade between $165 million (R1 764m) to $188m (R2 010m).
Paul Gildenhuys, head of the biodiversity crime unit at CapeNature, told the court ivory poaching and smuggling were carried out by international crime syndicates. Although only three elephants had been poached in South Africa in the past 10 years, elephant poaching was rampant elsewhere in Africa, and had increased rapidly since 2007. It was now estimated that in Africa an elephant was killed every 15 minutes.
“If current poaching levels continue, elephants will be near extinction in 10 years. Species are finite. Once they are gone, they are gone forever,” Gildenhuys said.
Last year 41.5 tons of ivory had been seized globally.
Gildenhuys said seizures were thought to reflect only 10 percent of what was illegally traded.
Liang has a previous conviction of illegal abalone possession, for which he was fined R80 000 in 2004.
His defence advocate, Jannie Kruger, told the court Liang had an income of R20 000 a month and could not afford to pay a heavy fine.
In passing sentence, Magistrate Johan Venter questioned why Liang had come to South Africa. Immediately after he had arrived in 2003 he had been convicted of illegal abalone possession.
“And here you stand before court again and are found to be part of a syndicate… It is still a mystery where you get your income and where it is paid. Why this mystery? The question arises, is it not perhaps from the syndicate, that is why it is not disclosed?” Venter said.
He referred to judgements which said the personal interests of the accused should not prevail above those of the public. Sentences should be a deterrent, so potential poachers and smugglers would know they were be prosecuted and properly sentenced.
Rynette Coetzee, of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, welcomed the sentence on Sunday