John M. Sellar OBE, retired head of law enforcement at CITES for 14 years, speaking at the Wildlife in Crisis conference in Cape Town last week believes the only way to stop the problem is through proper law enforcement.
Over the past few years, many have scrambled to find a solution to the rhino poaching crisis with little success. Programs of arming and training rangers, which have been overseen by retired Army Major-General, Johan Jooste, have had some success but 1400 apprehended transgressors in the last five years is just the tip of the iceberg.
As a former inspector for the Scottish Police Service, Sellar says he gets nervous when the army or rangers are brought in to do police-work because they don’t have the necessary skills to investigate what essentially is a sophisticated global criminal network on a par with drugs and human trafficking.
The crisis ought to be handled by the heads of the law enforcement like the police commissioners, immigration and customs heads and special investigative agencies. They need to share and disseminate information not just among themselves, but with like agencies in Viet Nam and China together with international bodies, Interpol and the World Customs Organization.
The proof is in the pudding. On the odd occasion when police and other law enforcement agencies do get seriously involved, it pays off. Earlier this month, Mozambican police swooped in on a private residence of a Chinese national in Maputo who had been under surveillance for some time. They confiscated 65 rhino horns along with 1.2 tons of ivory. It was the largest haul of rhino horns to date.
Unfortunately, the bust revealed the dark underbelly of law enforcement. On Friday last week – ironically on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Mozambican Police Force – the entire stash of rhino horns was stolen form the strong-room of the Police Provincial Command in Maputo.
But while more prone to corruption than other countries, Mozambique is not solely to blame. South African law enforcement is also riddled with the malaise. Some South African prosecutors handling the cases of arrested poachers have revealed that corruption in law enforcement and correctional services is the biggest problem facing rhinos today.
Of the 1400 apprehended only 100 have been convicted. Already this year, eight law enforcement officers were arrested for poaching or in possession of rhino horn. One of them was in charge of the canine unit that tracks poachers.
There is a case of a Vietnamese dealer who was convicted for eight years but was released by Correctional Services after just 15-months.
The common held view is that organised crime only flourishes in a corrupt system. End corruption and organised crime can be adequately dealt with. Sellar says wildlife crime tends to be given a low priority – not only in South Africa and Mozambique but internationally. The World Customs Organization, for example, only has one person dedicated to investigating wildlife crime for the whole world.
Sellar doesn’t like to call it a silver bullet but, speaking in his no-nonsense Aberdonian accent, he unequivocally states that if we prompt major changes in law enforcement to give wildlife crime the highest priority, then, and only then, will rhinos be saved.