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Is our government really doing all they can to combat rhino poaching? In a report investigating the challenges facing the enforcement of South Africa’s environmental laws, shortages in resources, skills and multiple, changing legislations have been identified as the most serious shortcomings.

For two years Rynette Coetzee of the Endangered Wildlife Trust and environmental crime prosecutor, Phil Snijman, worked on a report titled: The status quo of compliance monitoring and enforcement of biodiversity and conservation legislation in South Africa.

According to the report, effective compliance monitoring and law enforcement are hampered by conflicting and confusing regulations. “We have all these pieces of legislation that are supposed to complement each other but they don’t. They create problems and loopholes and this affects enforcement and compliance efficiency,” says Coetzee.

Mussel pickers being checked for their licenses on the Cape Peninsula © Jamie Keenan
Mussel pickers being checked for their licenses on the Cape Peninsula © Jamie Keenan

South Africa not only has the National Environmental Management Act, but under this umbrella you will also find the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, the National Water Act and others. Then there is provincial legislation in each of the nine provinces, as well as local council bylaws. This poses a challenge when enforcing environmental laws as there is so much legislation and not just one ‘go to’ act to implement. Environmental Management Inspectors (EMIs) and prosecutors really have to know their laws and have to fit the legislation to the crime to ensure they have chosen the act or ordinance that will yield the highest penalty and have the required effect, deterring future environmental crimes.

Conservation law enforcement agencies also don’t have adequate budgets to do their work, says Coetzee: “Recently I have spoken to two important conservation law enforcement agencies, both have had major budget cuts. According to one of the officials, the practical impact is that they can only afford to undertake actual investigations one out of every four weeks.”

While investigating for their report, Coetzee also found that wildlife crime dockets opened by EMIs are often put at the ‘bottom of the pile’ because police are inundated with what is perceived as more serious criminal cases. It is common knowledge that the South African Police Service faces its own challenges concerning budget and resources but wildlife crime feels the effects of this. Wildlife crime offenders are often not prosecuted and walk away with an admission of guilt fine. It needs to be recognised however, that there have been improvements with the investigation of rhino related crimes, but the same efforts need to be implemented for other similar crimes, for example: cycad thefts, elephant ivory smuggling, abalone poaching and the illegal trading in live wild animals such as cranes, reptiles and invertebrates.

EMIs investigating cycad thefts © J. Pienaar
EMIs investigating cycad thefts © J. Pienaar

With the prevalence of rhino poaching and more daily news of poachers being apprehended in South Africa, Coetzee believes it’s important that a study be undertaken to establish the percentage of arrested rhino poachers who are actually convicted.

Not only does our legislation need to be restructured to improve alignment and effectiveness but government needs to come to the party with better budget allocations. Coetzee also believes that “if we can reach the South African Police Service, prosecutors and magistrates and convince them of the importance of environmental crimes, the short and long term effects and the importance of effective enforcement and strong penalties, we will start turning the tide on wildlife crimes.”

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Martina Polley is a freelance journalist living in Cape Town. Her work can be found in local publications where she writes about social issues, wildlife, conservation or the joys of travel. She spent two years living on a game reserve, a year surviving on baguettes through Europe and a month exploring India solo. Her favourite pastime is donning her Vellies for a trip into the bush.

Africa Geographic Travel
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