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Durban - Two men who killed endangered vultures and an eagle have been jailed for two years.
The birds are protected endangered species in terms of the National Environmental Management Bio-Diversity Act.
Security guard Sabelo Mbazini, 25, and unemployed Philani Gumede, 20, appeared in the Ubombo Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday and were found guilty of killing and possessing two African white-back vultures and a tawny eagle.
Both are from the Mandlanzi area of the Kwa Jobe community.
On January 9 rangers stationed in iSimangaliso’s Mkuze Reserve section received information that the vultures, lured by a carcass said to have been poisoned in the park on January 8, were to be sold outside a school.
They received a description of the poachers and waited for them at the school. When the rangers approached three men carrying bags fled. The carcasses of the three birds were found in the bags.
Two men were arrested and one escaped.
Magistrate Tamatharan Naidoo sentenced the men, first offenders, to two years’ imprisonment without the option of a fine.
He said if the courts were not seen to be sentencing those who contravened the environmental legislation in accordance with the severe penalties imposed by the act, then the public would lose faith in the justice system.
The penalties set down in the act reflected public opinion about the seriousness of the crime.
The accused had not killed the birds to feed themselves, said Naidoo, but rather to line their pockets. The carcasses were to be sold for the muti trade.
iSimangaliso Wetland Authority chief executive, Andrew Zaloumis, said the sentence sent a strong message to poachers.
“African white-back vultures are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and BirdLife International, and they may well face extinction in our lifetimes if nothing is done to stop the illegal trade.
“iSimangaliso will continue to ensure criminals involved in poaching and trading vultures and eagles are brought to book.”
In June, after an African white-back and 48 Cape Griffon vultures were poisoned with agrochemical carbofuran near Swartberg in KwaZulu-Natal, Dr Gerhard Verdoorn, of the Griffon Poison Information Centre, called for tougher sentences for such crimes.
On Tuesday, he lauded the Ubombo sentence.
“In many cases courts give suspended sentences which is of no use, as the culprits just carry on with the same crime,” he said.
“I would have been happier if it had been a heavier sentence – the act makes provision for a maximum 10 years’ imprisonment or a R10 million fine.
“If it was a first offence and if they had only a few birds in their possession the court must have considered that.
“What is good about it is the news (of the sentence) will get around very soon in the community and that will scare off other people involved in this type of crime.
“What the magistrate has done is to create a legal precedent. Hopefully that will be borne in mind in sentencing future culprits.”
Verdoorn renewed his call to see those responsible for the Swartberg deaths convicted and sentenced.
“I want them to get the maximum (10 years or R10m) prescribed by the act,” he said.
In the course of his work advising on poisons – particularly agricultural poisons – Verdoorn said he had collected “tens of thousands of poisoned birds all over the country, as well as other animals such as leopards”.
He said his main interest was in lobbying against the misuse of agrochemicals.
“Killing 49 vultures illegally with an agrochemical is as bad as poaching rhino for their horns. While the global population of white rhinos is estimated to be more than 20 000 individuals, Cape Griffon vultures number far less than 10 000.”
The chief executive officer of Ezemvelo, Dr Bandile Mkhize, praised the Ezemvelo rangers who arrested the men, as well as the Department of Justice for handing down the heavy sentence.