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Durban - A convicted rhino poacher who was found guilty of the murder of his accomplice, even though he did not fire the gun, has been effectively jailed for 21 years.
On Thursday Ingwavuma Regional Court magistrate, MA Khumalo, sentenced Wawito Mawala to 15 years for the murder of his hunting companion, Erasmo Mazivele.
Mawala was also given nine years for unlawfully hunting rhino and a year for trespassing in an area where game was likely.
Four of the nine years will run concurrently with his murder term.
The magistrate took into account that Mawala did not physically kill the poacher, and that no species were killed or captured during their illegal hunt.
Mawala was unemployed at the time of his arrest, and had worked at a tearoom selling cakes and tea where he earned the equivalent of R257 a month, the court heard.
The magistrate said that rhino poaching was not only a cruel invasion into the rights of animals which were the country’s heritage, but the imminent extinction of the rhino population was badly affecting the economy.
Many people supported their families through tourism, and rhinos were a major tourist drawcard, Khumalo said.
“The continued poaching of rhinos and other specially-protected game will continue to minimise the ability of the vibrant tourism function that provides employment and economic opportunities to many people in this country who are increasingly dependent on this for their livelihood.”
He described rhino poachers as “greedy” and “selfish”. They had no feelings for the rights of animals or the people who suffered as a result of dwindling rhino numbers.
Rod Potter, vice-chairman of the Wildlife Crime Working Group in KwaZulu-Natal, who testified in aggravation of sentence, commended the prosecution, the police and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife for their joint efforts in ensuring a successful conviction and sentence.
“It’s the right message that needs to be sent out to poachers on the border. Although the areas may be far-flung, officials will go the length and breadth of the area to seek justice,” Potter said.
On his testimony, the magistrate said it was evident that the problem was much bigger than imagined.
“The taxpayers of this country are footing the bill for the preservation of the rhino population.”
In what has been hailed as a groundbreaking verdict in the fight against rhino poaching, the court found that Mawala, of Mozambique, must have foreseen the possibility of the death of Mazivele when he conspired to hunt rhino at Ndumo Game Reserve in November 2011.
Mazivele and his three companions, including the deceased, were spotted by two game rangers who were pursuing a white rhino.
One of the rangers ordered Mazivele, who was carrying a bolt-action rifle, to lower his weapon, but Mazivele turned and pointed it in the direction of the ranger, the court heard.
The rangers fired shots at Mazivele and his companions, fatally wounding him. Mawala and the others fled.
Mawala was found the next morning by patrolling rangers.
The magistrate said that Mawala had not given reasons during his trial why he should not be held accountable for the murder of Mazivele.
The court also rejected Mawala’s explanation that he was on his way to Durban in search of work, and that he was not aware that he was in a reserve.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesman, Musa Mntambo, said: “We are excited about the sentence. The co-operation between law enforcement and the Department of Justice, with this case in particular, was exceptional.
“We hope it will send a message to the poachers.”