SA conservationists welcome stricter sentencing of wildlife criminals
Martina Polley
13 September, 2013

Conservationists across South Africa have commended the severe penalty meted out in Cape Town last week to Cheng Jie Liang, a Chinese national for the illegal possession of one ton of elephant tusks.

Jie Liang was sentenced to 10 years in jail and a R5 million fine for possessing one ton of poached elephant tusks, corresponding to 34 dead elephants.

According to a Cape Times report by Melanie Gosling, some of the nerve cavities of some of the seized tusks were still moist with blood and tissue when they were found in Milnerton in September 2012.

Rynette Coetzee of the Endangered Wildlife Trust welcomed the sentencing and said it was a step in the right direction by the courts. “This is a huge improvement on the penalties that are normally handed down and it tells us that prosecutors, officers and the magistrates are starting to see the negative effect that poaching is having on the wildlife of Africa.”

The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) were also happy with the ruling. “It sends out a strong message to the wildlife criminals and networks out there saying: if you get caught here dealing in wildlife products, you’re going to face the significant and growing might of the law,” commented Chris Galliers, WESSA’s National Biodiversity Programme Manager.

It’s taken a long time for South Africa’s legal workforce to sit up and take notice of the seriousness of wildlife crime. “Prosecutors are so overworked with so many murder, rape and other very serious crime dockets that often wildlife has not been dealt with as a priority crime… It’s taken the loss of 1000s of rhinos for them to see the devastating effect of organised crime on our wildlife,” says Coetzee.

In the past elephant ivory smugglers have walked with measly fines. It’s improved remarkably on the normal fine of about R350 000 or a suspended prison sentence of three or four years,” commented Coetzee.

Galliers believes the awareness raised around wildlife crimes through the plight of the rhino in South Africa has turned the spotlight on wildlife crime across the continent, with some light shed on the plight of other threatened species such as elephants and pangolins. “This will better prepare us to protect the whole host of other species that are significantly threatened by over utilization.”

Karen Trendler of Working Wild spent a weekend recently with nine prosecutors and organised crime senior officials. She believes the more frequently we see this sort of sentencing, the easier it will become for the South African courts to prosecute wildlife crime successfully. “The group included the prosecutor who secured the 77 year sentence in the case of Mandla Chauke – they are completely committed to getting convictions and the highest sentencing but are also limited by investigations, corruption, the Constitution and the structure of law. The more convictions and prosecutions that are seen through, the more there is to learn from and precedents will be set. This will result in a cumulative impact.”

In a speech delivered at a National Assembly debate on rhino poaching in Parliament this September, Terri Stander, DA Shadow Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs, pointed out that for the most part only schedule one criminals had been convicted in SA courts and that very few key players had been arrested thus far. “Sentences have improved lately…But cases still take years to finalise.”

Since 2011, there have been 151 cases finalised involving 290 accused, of which 181 were convicted. This is an acceptable conviction rate on the face of it; however a different picture emerges when these results are compared to official SANParks statistics, which record 1164 arrests since 2010. The figures may not be directly comparable however it is quite clear that only a small percentage of those arrested actually appeared in court and fewer still of those arrested were convicted.

In July this year the notorious Groenewald case, which has been open for four years, was again postponed to a provisional trial date of 4 August 2015, pending the outcome of a Constitutional Court challenge to the South African government’s moratorium on internal trade in rhino horn.

Alleged “rhino horn syndicate kingpin” Dawie Groenewald and his co accused, including two veterinarians, a pilot and a game farmer are charged with rhino poaching and killing, the selling of rhino horns and disposing of the carcasses, twenty of which were found buried on the Groenewald game farm in Musina in 2010.

Groenewald and his alleged co-conspirators still face 1,872 charges, including illegal rhino hunting, racketeering, permit violations and illegal trade in rhino horn. They were granted bail, ranging from R20 000 to R1 million.

A public prosecutor in Johannesburg, who has requested to remain anonymous, believes bail of suspected poachers is granted too easily, resulting in dockets going missing and suspects never appearing in court. “Sometimes bail is given for as little as R1500…I heard suspects who killed a rhino in August 2013 in Limpopo province had their case thrown out as the case dockets went missing. If no bail is granted, the legal system works much faster and cases appear far quicker; when bail is granted, cases can take a few years to come up.”

Galliers who is also Chairman of the Game Ranger’s Association of Africa, noted how ineffectual convictions have a negative effect on committed anti poaching units. “There’s nothing more demoralising (for anti-poaching rangers) than poachers who have been caught and then get released. And we’re seeing it far too often, there’s people being released on bail and sometimes there is a huge disparity in the way magistrates across the country are dealing with the situation.”

Conservationists have called upon South Africa’s Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to apply the “Minimum Sentences Act” to crimes related to rhino poaching.

This move would prescribe a minimum sentence of 10 years imprisonment for poaching activities involving rhinos or threatened or protected species with a value of R100 000 or more.

The application also includes a proposal to deem poaching of threatened species a schedule 5 offence which removes the magistrates discretion in granting bail.

Demands for the change in South African law were delivered to the Department of Environmental Affairs, the President’s office, SANParks, Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, the Minister of Justice, Minister of Police, Minister of Agriculture and various political parties on 12 August 2014 via courier.

Organised by the Global March for Elephants and Rhino, a march taking place across 120 cities around the world on 4 October 2014, the demands incorporated in the document titled “Proposed Amendment to Legislation for the South African Government” (PALSA) will also be delivered to South African embassies in those 120 cities on the 22nd of September (World Rhino Day) and on 4 October 2014, the day of the Global March for Elephants and Rhino.

Just this week rhino smuggler Chumlong Lemtongthai is appealing his sentence in the Bloemfontein Appeal Court. Lemtongthai is a known co-operator with one of wildlife crimes notorious kingpins, Vixay Keosavang.

By no means a schedule one poacher, Lemtongthai was identified as a middleman between Vixay Keosavang and his operations in South Africa. Lemtongthai was sentenced to 40 years in South African prison last year, which was reduced on appeal to 30 years. He used bogus hunters, which included alleged Thai prostitutes, who were paid to pose next to dead rhinos that professional hunters had shot. In total, 26 sets of rhino horn were seized during the operation.

Chris Galliers of WESSA commented “We believe the sentence is representative of the crime and he must pay for it. We need to send a strong message to any other country that is looking to exploit our natural heritage;  they need to realise they are going to face the full might of South Africa’s law and South Africa’s concern around our conservation success story…We would hate to see the downgrading of this sentence.”

Main Photo: (Don Pinnock)