Some conservationists and activists in South Africa are concerned that criminal syndicates are making it even more difficult to protect rhinos from poachers.
By Laurel Neme
“GO NOW! THE spoor is fresh!” Sandra Snelling, an operations manager for South African National Parks (SANParks), exclaimed, sending a squad of rangers on their next mission: tracking the poachers who had just killed a rhino in Kruger National Park.
It was October 2016, and I’d come to Skukuza, a SANparks post inside Kruger, to see how anti-poaching operations are carried out in the famed 7,500-square-mile preserve, where about 30 percent of the world’s estimated remaining 18,000 wild rhinos live.
Urgent dispatches are no surprise to these rangers, members of a special operations unit. Kruger, which encompasses land in Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces, has long been a key target of poachers who kill rhinos for their horns, says Johan Jooste, former head of special projects at SANParks, the agency that administers the country’s preserves. The poachers are infiltrators from Mozambique, which abuts Kruger’s eastern border, as well as impoverished local villagers who sell horns to criminal networks that smuggle them to Asian countries—mainly China and Vietnam—to be sold for use in traditional medicines or made into bracelets, carvings, and trinkets.
Kruger is home to two rhino species: about 500 black rhinos, which have a pointed lip for browsing on shrubs, and the more numerous white rhinos, with a squared lip for grazing on grass. Poachers have killed more than 8,200 rhinos in South Africa during the past decade; from 2012 to 2017, Kruger’s white rhino numbers fell from 10,500 to about 5,100.
In recent years, it seems, the anti-poaching battleground has expanded, as criminal networks appear to be infiltrating South Africa’s judicial and bureaucratic structures.
“It is difficult to convey the scale of the problem,” says Andrea Crosta, executive director of Earth League International, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit dedicated to fighting wildlife crime. Over the last four years, he has led an undercover investigation on rhino trafficking and poaching in South Africa. Crosta believes that “Poaching syndicates have [many South African] government officials in their pockets. They have every base covered. It creates a highly incompetent, corrupt, and dysfunctional landscape that these criminal networks then capitalize on—with the loser being the rhinos.”
Rhino horn syndicates are multilevel criminal networks, with poachers and couriers managed and paid by regional bosses who mastermind and direct operations, receiving the rhino horns and supplying them to national-level traders. Those traders have connections with buyers in Asia and oversee the shipment of horns out of Africa. Often, as detailed by Al Jazeera’s The Poacher’s Pipeline investigation, they have strategic contacts embedded in law enforcement and government bureaucracies, guaranteeing a degree of protection for their illicit dealings.
Experts point to the abrupt closure last year of South Africa’s special “rhino court,” in Skukuza, as a likely example of syndicate influence. Also suspicious is the sidelining of some of the most effective anti-poaching personnel, including specific rangers, investigators, and prosecutors. In addition, wildlife advocates also point to the failure of the South African Police Service to renew a contract for DNA testing of rhino horn evidence, among other government inactions.
Questions therefore arise among field personnel, investigators, prosecutors, lawyers and conservation organizations as to whether various individuals are making concerted efforts to undermine law enforcement and increase the chances for poaching suspects to walk free.
Confronting the crime syndicates that finance and organize rhino killings is key to combating the relentless onslaught, Jooste said in a 2016 Global Initiative investigation into transnational organized crime and rhino horn trafficking. Stopping poachers saves rhinos and buys time, he said, but winning won’t happen in the bush. Rather, “victory will only occur in the courts.”
That belief spurred the creation of Skukuza Regional Court in March 2017 to handle hearings and trials for rhino poachers and traffickers caught in and around Kruger.
During its first year, the court brought more than 90 poachers to justice—a 100 percent conviction rate, according to Ansie Venter, one of Skukuza’s two senior prosecutors. Venter and her colleague, both of whom had backgrounds in organized crime cases and extensive knowledge of wildlife crime-related law, routinely secured prison sentences of 12 to 40 years. Nationwide, by contrast, fewer than 25 percent of similar convictions resulted in sentences longer than 10 years, according to South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries 2019 rhino poaching statistics.
Rhino killings also slowed. Poachers killed 662 rhinos in Kruger in 2016, according to Edna Molewa, then the minister of environmental affairs. The following year, as Skukuza Regional Court ramped up, the number dropped to 504. Last year in Kruger, 328 rhinos were poached. Meanwhile, rhino killings in parks in other provinces, such as KwaZulu-Natal and North West, increased, suggesting that poachers had begun to avoid Kruger.
“The higher the sentence, the bigger the deterrent,” Venter told me in May 2018 when I visited her in her Skukuza courthouse office, a stark room lined with hundreds of case files.
A mysterious decision
Despite Skukuza Regional Court’s rapid and dramatic success, on August 28, 2019, Naomi Engelbrecht, who administers regional and district courts in Mpumalanga province, ordered the court’s entire roll of some 72 cases transferred to Mhala Regional Court, more than 50 miles away.
Engelbrecht’s action took her boss, judge president of Mpumalanga province Francis Legodi, by surprise. Under normal circumstances, Legodi, who coordinates the lower courts and oversees judges in the province, should have been involved in the decision.
“Several of the important players that needed to be informed about this move were not aware of it,” Chrispin Phiri, spokesperson for the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, told Pippa Hudson, the host of a midday radio news and lifestyle show on September 20, 2019. “It’s quite concerning for our side.”
The closure of the court, Hudson said during her interview with Phiri, “raises suspicion in the public’s eyes. Is there an underhanded motive here that someone maybe is being paid off by the poaching syndicates who don’t like the fact that this court is as effective as it is?”
“Poachers would rather go where the chances of conviction are less and the sentences lower,” Venter said. “They know that if convicted in [Skukuza court], they will serve many years behind bars.”
Engelbrecht declined to comment to National Geographic.
Engelbrecht’s shutdown of Skukuza Regional Court was so unusual that by September 20, the Department of Justice and Correctional Services had called for a temporary moratorium on the closure. Meanwhile, Legodi ordered her to reopen the court and move back its outstanding cases.
According to the Mpumalanga High Court, Engelbrecht “said she chose to ignore them” and made it clear that she regarded the directives as incompetent and thus null and void and so would not implement them.
Over the next few months, Legodi reiterated the orders, and Engelbrecht continued to flout them. And when prosecutors formally asked Mhala court to transfer the rhino cases back to Skukuza, Engelbrecht stepped in as magistrate to deny the request. That was a clear conflict of interest, according to the Mpumalanga High Court, which said Engelbrecht intervened “to make sure her own view was implemented.”
To resolve the standoff, Mpumalanga High Court reviewed Engelbrecht’s actions. She submitted a written affidavit noting that she’d closed the court largely because, in her view, it had never officially been announced and thus wasn’t a legally valid venue to hold trials.
On February 24, when the high court’s three-judge panel heard oral arguments, Engelbrecht wasn’t present. Instead, Kgama Shai, a criminal defense attorney representing suspected poachers who would appear before the court, spoke on her behalf.
“Her being spoken for by Shai really led people to question her motives and integrity,” says Elise Serfontein, founding director of StopRhinoPoaching.com, an independent South African nonprofit.
In a ruling on April 22, Mpumalanga High Court declared Engelbrecht’s reasons for closing the court invalid and said she’d “acted improperly” in defying Legodi’s orders and serving as magistrate to stop the re-transfer of cases back to Skukuza.
In their written ruling, the justices also noted concerns that Engelbrecht may have “stopped the regional court from sitting at Skukuza as a result of request by the [accused poachers’] attorneys.”
“Her conduct had actual and potential harmful consequences,” the high court concluded. “It is hard to see any good faith on her part.”
As yet, no disciplinary action against Engelbrecht has been taken or intimated. Mahomed Dawood, secretary of the Magistrates Commission, a board that advises the justice ministry on hiring and firing of judges, says "the matter related to … Engelbrecht is currently before the Ethics Committee.”
Engelbrecht did not respond to several additional requests for comment in light of the high court’s ruling.
Closure of Skukuza Regional Court helps create “a laissez-faire atmosphere,” says Susie Ellis, former executive director of and now senior advisor with the International Rhino Foundation. Without it, “poachers may believe that they can get away with wildlife crime more easily and thus become more emboldened.”
Poachers tried in Skukuza Regional Court “know at end of day they are probably going to jail,” senior prosecutor Venter said. “So they try to delay.”
According to Venter, she and her prosecutor colleague typically finalized four to eight cases a month, whereas at Mhala court, only two of their rhino poaching-related cases were concluded between September 2019 and the end of February 2020.
“That slow justice sends a message to rangers that these crimes are not a priority,” Ellis says.
It affects morale, Serfontein adds. “It’s that element of absolute urgency for rangers that they’re busy wearing away—that inner drive that makes a ranger follow the tracks, knowing it will likely end in a gunfight, instead of pretending he never saw them and going home.”
What will happen next for Skukuza Regional Court is unclear. Although the high court ruled that Skukuza should reopen, it hasn’t yet, and there’s no official word on when it will. It’s also unclear whether Englebrecht will face disciplinary action. She already lost in court once, and she has indicated plans to appeal, which could further delay the court’s reopening.