Poachers masquerading as rangers, magistrates allegedly taking bribes from kingpins and lenient sentences handed out to ruthless criminals - this is the current state of South Africa’s rhino crisis, according to campaigners.
Strict limits on travel due to coronavirus, imposed last year, had a positive effect on keeping poachers and smugglers at bay, with just 394 rhinos poached in the country in 2021, 30 percent fewer than the year before and the lowest yearly tally since 2011.
The majority of these incidents came from Kruger National Park (245) and the Kwa-Zulu Natal (93), according to South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.
But with gates open again, the onslaught on rhinos and corruption inside courtrooms is once again rising, according to Jamie Joseph, head of the environmental charity, Saving the Wild.
Speaking from an undisclosed location in Africa, Ms Joseph told the Independent: “For the last decade corruption has been driving rhinos into extinction, and it’s just getting worse.
“The kingpins call the shots; we run the intel, they get arrested, but then they always get bail and never go to jail.”
Ms Joseph alleged that kingpins were able to “rule” because of the “dirty officers and magistrates on their payroll.”
South Africa is home to 80 percent of Africa’s rhino population, but there are only about 25,000 rhinos left and roughly 1,000 are killed every year for their horn.
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But the violent and deadly trade has brewed in the country for decades; In 2007, the country lost just 13 rhinos to poaching; the next year, that number jumped to 83.
By 2014, a total of 1,215 had been killed in one year and deaths are still high.
The horns are made of keratin, the same substance as fingernails, which means they can grow back. They are considered to be worth more by weight than cocaine, and so traffickers go to great lengths to smuggle it out or in and around Africa.
Ms Joseph, a dedicated conservationist originally born in Zimbabwe, first launched what she describes as the “Blood Rhino Blacklist” in 2017 – a list of allegedly corrupt magistrates and lawyers who she claims have taken bribes on rhino poaching and other crimes.
Her Blacklist investigations led the Ministry of Justice to suspend KwaZulu Natal Court President, Eric Nzimande.
Mr Nzimande, who was responsible for, among other things, the appointment of presiding officers to the province’s regional courts was suspended in October 2018.
He now he faces 112 disciplinary charges, including appointing acting regional court magistrates in return for payments.
Other cases of alleged corruption in courts include the case of alleged kingpin Dumisani Gwala, who is accused of running a trafficking ring.
He was arrested with rhino horn, but has pleaded not guilty to charges of dealing in protected wildlife parts.
An eight-month intelligence-driven operation led to Mr Gwala’s arrest in December 2014.
It was hailed a significant bust as he had been caught several times before, but the cases had either been withdrawn, or the dockets “suspiciously” went missing, according to Ms Joseph.
The case of Mr Gwala is still ongoing but the campaigner said his trial at Mtubatuba Magistrates Court is “long overdue.”
It has been mired in controversy and back in 2017 several wildlife campaigners argued that the case needed to be moved to a different court.
The trial is now scheduled for June 28 this year after it was delayed 30 times, Ms Joseph told the Independent.
Jeanâ-Pierre Roux, the former police endangered wildlife detective, who arrested Gwala, said: “We faced corruption in all facets from police involvement in criminal activities, the robbery and corruption that comes after people are confronted or arrested to the corruption with the magistrates and prosecutors.
“We had to deal with all of that.”
Mr Roux, who has faced death threats for getting too close to information, claimed that some police officers left or retired from forces due to the state of the alleged corruption.
“I think proper vetting should be implemented as well as background checks. But then you must take into consideration as well, that not all criminals or corrupt officials start off corrupt but they change when they come in.
“But another issue is that those good officials or rangers are afraid of speaking up out of fear of losing their lives because they might live in the same area as the criminal. They could get killed,” he added.
But Ms Joseph claims that corruption doesn’t just lie inside courtrooms in South Africa but it also takes place on the fields, where rangers should be protecting the wildlife.
She alleged that the greatest challenge the Kruger faces “is the enemy within.”
One bust includes that of Phineas Dinda, who is a former Sanparks full corporal in the Rangers Corps.
He was arrested in Tshokwane section in May 2019 and was found in possession of trespassing the Kruger National Park, conspiracy to commit a crime, and possession of an unlicensed firearm, live ammunition and an axe, reported the Times Live.
Dinda was jailed for 16 years.
Three other SanParks employees were arrested for poaching in October 2020, according to EWN News.
The two security guards and another worker from the technical services division were arrested during an operation between the park and the police.
In a statement published by Gareth Coleman, the managing executive of the Kruger National Park, at the time, he said: “It is always disheartening when colleagues from Sanparks are involved in criminal activities.
“It breaks down trust amongst employees which impacts our responsibilities to act as an effective conservation authority serving the people of South Africa,” Mr Coleman said.
Ms Joseph, however, argues much more needs to be done as “rangers are being forced to work with poachers masquerading as rangers.”
“The thing is, you can have all the money and all the technology and all the weapons and all the soldiers in the world. But if you lose the war on corruption, you lose the war on everything,” she added.