These alleged rhino poaching kingpins “continue to evade justice” despite orchestrating the killing of rhinos and the trafficking of their horns,” says Peter Knights, the chief executive of WildAid.
This week, the international wildlife NGO, which works to reduce demand for wildlife products, released a report detailing the “less than stellar performance” of authorities who it accuses of failing to prosecute or sufficiently punish those arrested for high-level involvement in rhino crimes.
Low-level poachers, by contrast, are often shot or jailed for lengthy terms.
South Africa’s rhino crisis has been “stimulated by organised crime” and “facilitated by corruption, procedural incompetence, and a failure to prosecute mid and higher-level trade operators.
“This has been despite actionable intelligence generated from sophisticated investigations implicating officials in SA and Mozambique.”
Susie Watts, the report’s author, says the lack of progress “mainly results from confused messaging and a legal system that seems to focus on punishing the ‘small poacher’, while allowing the Mr Bigs to walk free time and again”.
“Many reports of high-profile arrests indicate that the suspects were apprehended while already out on bail for previous rhino-related offences,” says the report, "Failure to Prosecute and Mixed Messages: How SA Can Single-Handedly Lose the Second Rhino War".
“In one notorious case, the defendant was granted bail, given back his passport, and permitted to fly to another country to pursue business interests.”
Yet South Africa, says WildAid, has taken “great pride” in publishing statistics on the number of jailed and killed rhino poachers.
Organised crime is stopped by taking out the leaders, not just the footsoldiers, says Knights. “The corruption, incompetence, and leniency in the system must not be allowed to continue.”
South Africa’s failure to detect pseudo hunting and the lack of higher level prosecutions have “deeply undermined rhino protection efforts”.
While the report shows how “substantial progress” has been made to reduce consumer demand for rhino horn in Asia - reporting that prices have fallen by half in China and Vietnam, South Africa has done little to advance reduction efforts in rhino horn and ivory-consuming countries.
“Perhaps this may be explained by the fact those very countries are the very potential customers for SA’s ivory and rhino horn,” WildAid suggests.
It notes how South Africa’s game industry was behind a challenge to South Africa’s moratorium on domestic rhino horn trade, which was overturned last month.
While rhino protection is improving in the Kruger Park and and demand is declining in Asia, South Africa “may seize defeat from the jaws of victory” by legalising trade and failing to prosecute the known kingpins.
While new anti-poaching systems in the Kruger Park appear to have reduced poaching “very slightly” in the past two years, the problem has shifted to other areas, particularly KwaZulu-Natal.
WildAid says that an ineffective judicial system, political cronyism, and a blind adherence to the belief that selling wildlife products protects the species from which they are taken, has deepened the crisis facing rhinos.
It calls for the reinstament of the moratorium on domestic rhino horn trade, this time using proper procedures, a firm rejection of international trade in rhino horn, support for demand reduction efforts and collaboration with Mozambique on the prosecution of corrupt officials.
Knights says the government is insincere and blames a lack of political will. “That they’ve never moved up the food chain is a lack of political will.
“We’ve got quite sophisticated law enforcement in SA, compared to everywhere else in Africa, But evidence is lost and court cases are not pursued. Meanwhile, rhinos keep dying and rangers and poachers keep dying on both sides.”
But Albi Modise, the spokesman for the Department of Environmental Affairs, terms the report unfair.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re not doing enough to fight poaching, especially given the fact that the poaching experienced in South Africa is part of the global phenomenon of illegal wildlife trade.
“We’ve signed memorandums of understanding with Vietnam, China and Mozambique. We need to acknowledge this is a global phenomenon that requires a global effort.”