MUKULA is one of the rosewood species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Supplied
JOHANNESBURG - The South African Revenue Service (Sars) has moved to tackle the illegal trade in protected timber, through strict customs controls at the country’s ports of entry.

Sars acting spokesperson Sicelo Mkosi said all customs declarations, including mukula wood, would be subjected to the necessary customs controls in the event that the goods are declared incorrectly.

“Transit cargo, into the neighbouring countries, is generally not selected for inspection in the interests of facilitating trade,” Mkosi said. “However, in instances where a risk has been identified, customs will intervene in terms of an enforcement action.

“Further note that the Sars Customs is participating in Operation Sesha (derived from Seshachalam forest). This programme is an international operation endorsed by the World Customs Organisation aimed at curbing the cross-border trafficking of protected flora. Operation Sesha is specifically tackling the illegal timber trade.” Mukula is a rare African tree and one of the rosewood species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).

Sars administers certain prohibitions or restrictions in terms of section 113(8)(a) of the Customs and Excise Act on behalf of a number of government departments, institutions or bodies.

A recent report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in Zambia found that the Port of Durban was allegedly being used as the principal point of illicit trade in mukula wood from Zambia to China.

The EIA said more than 50 40-foot containers of mukula had been exported monthly from June 2017 to May this year, in breach of export bans.

The EIA report estimates that this illegal trade generates $7.5million (R107.63m) a year in bribes and informal “fees”.

The director of forest campaigns at the EIA, Lisa Handy, said the operations of the “mukula cartel” were driven by international demand, almost exclusively from China, and were responsible for the destruction of Zambia’s vulnerable forests.

“If not dismantled, the mukula cartel has the power to derail the international protection granted to these rare African trees,” Handy said. “This will result in a continued assault against fragile forests and rural communities.”

The EIA has recommended that Zambia suspends the trade of mukula using a zero-export quota, until the alleged trafficking networks are dismantled, and the requisite for trading under Cites are met and shared publicly.

The Port of Durban, together with South Africa’s six logistics ports, is operated by Transnet Port Terminals.

The general manager of the Port of Durban, Moshe Motlohi, referred questions to Sars. Motlohi said Transnet National Ports Authority worked closely with law enforcement and other relevant stakeholders to minimise threats or incidents related to international trade through the ports.

“Sars has state-of-the-art cargo scanners in the ports to inspect suspicious cargo and clamp down on non-compliant behaviour, while still facilitating legitimate trade,” Motlohi said. “For security reasons, Transnet’s port divisions have no detailed knowledge of the contents of containers handled at the ports.”