Protecting South Africa’s biodiversity
Melissa Reitz
June 25, 2015

Environmental destruction across the world is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, which begs the question why the South African government is so complacent in the face of biodiversity issues?

An average of two skirmishes a week occur in remote areas of the Kruger National Park between poachers and park rangers. According to Major General Jooste, commanding officer of SANParks Special Projects, up to 40 poachers are within the park’s boundaries at any given time.

It’s not only rhinos that are suffering but other species of flora and fauna are also under threat from poaching and trade. Cycads, various succulents, rare reptiles, pangolins and abalone, are just a few on a long list of South Africa’s threatened indigenous species. Whole ecosystems of fragmented coastal forest and overfished marine areas are also enduring immense pressure from overpopulation, development and pollution.

Due to corrupt officials and the porous nature of South African borders, tourism creates an ideal platform for the illegal wildlife trade. Foreign collectors posing as tourists have devastating effects on sensitive ecosystems. “The Western Cape is particularly sensitive to this kind of crime, due to its unique and abundant biodiversity and its popularity among tourists,” said biodiversity enforcement manager for Cape Nature, Paul Gildenhuys.

South Africa has been acknowledged for its progressive environmental law. However, the nine different sets of provincial legislation make for a complex system creating loopholes that allow criminals to slip through the cracks and authorities to ‘pass-the buck’.

A case between the NSPCA and the Eastern Cape government about permits for the removal of elephant calves from the wild highlights this situation. The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) claimed the permit application is the province’s mandate and a need for national government to investigate was unnecessary – even though the permits were granted in contravention of a national law. So although conservation is a joint responsibility between national and provincial governments, the devolution of powers allows parties to escape their obligations, and loopholes create conflicting legislation.

The staggering number of day-to-day crimes that the Judicial Department faces, coupled with a lack of political will and resources, often means that crimes against the environment are pushed to the bottom of the pile.

Online trade and the monetary value of certain species has placed biodiversity crime on a par with other forms of organised crime, and should, therefore, be dealt with as such by government. However, in order for harsher penalties to make an impact, conviction rates need to be successful. As Rynette Coetzee, former field officer for Endangered Wildlife Trust says: “All the provinces are experiencing high capacity problems and severe budget constraints. Many prosecutors don’t specialise in biodiversity crimes and have countless other cases to deal with, and they simply do not feel that wildlife cases are a priority.”

At the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos in October last year, a document was distributed proposing that more stringent sentences be imposed on crimes involving endangered species, with a minimum sentence of 15 years. However, no response has been received to this proposal.

Although many environmental cases fall through the cracks, there are success stories of arrests made for illegal trafficking of fauna and flora. According to Paul Gildenhuys, these cases can be attributed to the joint cooperation of relevant departments such as SAPS, the Hawks, Marine Enforcement and Cape Nature.

It is hoped that arrests of this nature will become more commonplace with the move by the Environmental Management Inspectorate (EMI) to educate prosecutors on environmental legislation. Workshops held regularly with the Justice Training College on the complexities of biodiversity law, have resulted in a dedicated environmental advocate in each province and a greater number of prosecutors across the country tackling environmental offences. The Western Cape Environmental Crime Forum has also been established to combat the growing amount of environmental crimes.

And recently Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations have been updated to place greater accountability on individuals for sidestepping the required activities set out by EIA planning.

South Africans have a constitutional right to a healthy environment, and the government has a constitutional obligation to protect the environment through reasonable legislation.

Perhaps a holistic approach is needed by government that includes crime, economic and environmental authorities to find viable solutions to slow down the speed at which crime is devastating South Africa’s biodiversity.