The future of South Africa's first environmental court, established in Hermanus three years ago to counter the rape of the country's marine resources, hangs in the balance as justice minister Brigitte Mabandla considers a proposal to close it down.
This comes after the specialist environmental court, which works closely with law enforcement in the province, had an 85 percent conviction success rate last year and has put some of the key "middlemen" in marine poaching syndicates behind bars.
If the regional "green court" closes down, environmental cases are likely to revert to being heard by lower district courts around the province where there are no specialist prosecutors and where environmental cases historically have had a low conviction rate.
South Africa has lost an estimated R3-billion to marine poaching in the last few years.
Regional head of justice in the Western Cape, Hishaam Mohamed, confirmed on Sunday that the green court may close.
"It is one of six proposals before the ministry. We have submitted a report to the minister who will make a decision on the matter," he said.
The proposals were made after a task team was set up to consider whether the green court, established in March 2003 as a pilot project, should be made permanent.
Mohamed said he did not want to discuss the other proposals as the report had only just been submitted to the ministry.
The environmental court, a joint initiative by former justice minister Penuell Maduna and former environment minister Valli Moosa, was set up to counter what Maduna said at the time were "Chinese triads, the Italian and American mafia and a whole host of other groups" raiding South African waters in what he said had become "a real war out there".
Sources say the current justice ministry does not favour specialist courts.
The proposal has been met with shock from people involved in anti-poaching activities.
Pieter Benadie, who manages the Overstrand Municipality and Marine and Coastal Management's anti-poaching Marines unit, said if poaching cases had to be heard all over the region, it would lead to fewer convictions.
"Some public prosecutors don't have a clue about the seriousness of environmental crime. They do things like give back confiscated vehicles to people arrested for transporting poached marine resources," Benadie said.
Mike Tannett of Seawatch, a residents' anti-poaching group who work closely with the authorities in the Overstrand, said on Sunday it would be a blow to have the green court close.
"We've been working in the anti-poaching activities for 10 years now, and we know what a difference the green court has made. Phil Snyman, the public prosecutor, won 85 percent of his cases last year. Some of the criminals who were repeat offenders did not get the option of a fine and went to jail. That has scared off some of the middlemen who were known to us and we don't see them poaching anymore.
"But there are new faces moving in to take their places. If we don't have an environmental court with a prosecutor who specialises in environmental law, we will go back to what it used to be, with rich poachers hiring expensive lawyers who could run circles around the prosecutors and get these chaps off.
"To close something so successful makes no sense and will be detrimental to the environment," Tannett said.
Pam Yako, director-general of the department of environment affairs and tourism, praised the Hermanus green court at an environmental law enforcement conference in Durban in February.
Yako said the green court's "dedicated magistrates and prosecutors" had led to "a remarkable increase in prosecutions and in the prosecution success rate of marine-related crimes", adding that her department was keen to "continue the success" of the green court.
Justice ministry spokesperson Lesly Mashohwe said on Sunday he was unaware of the proposals and would try to establish this week when the minister would make a decision on the court.