Contrary to recent media reports, South Africa is not turning the tide on rhino poaching – the war has just shifted geographically.
Whilst ‘ground zero’ Kruger is showing signs of improvement thanks to vast resources and the incredible efforts of certain individuals, other provinces are not showing a downward trend. KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), second only to Kruger with the number of rhinos butchered last year, is experiencing its worst onslaught of poaching since the crisis began a decade ago.
On May 23rd trial dates were finally set for Dumisani Gwala, the alleged rhino kingpin of KwaZulu-Natal, currently out on R10 000 (US$640) bail for attempted murder and dealing in rhino horn. The trial begins on September 5th and rhino owners across Zululand will be in attendance, ensuring their presence is contributing to an honest court room. There have been several cases against Gwala before, but the cases have either been withdrawn, or the dockets have suspiciously gone missing.
When Gwala arrived at the courthouse on Monday we saw each other outside the courtroom, he began to stride down the hallway towards me – arms waving, he shouted repeatedly, “Why are you doing this to me?” To which I responded, “I’ll stop writing stories about you when you stop killing rhinos.” I left soon after the confrontation as certain individuals began complaining to the police that they wanted me removed. The courthouse manager refused to give me his name and kept complaining that we were not allowed to film or take photographs outside the courtroom (which is within our rights). When I asked the court manager how he would like me to apply for permission he stared blankly at me and refused to speak.
Gwala is widely known among poaching circles and law enforcement as a man that rules by the gun. According to a spokesperson for the special crime unit that arrested Dumisani Gwala in December 2014, he is the leader of KZN’s biggest rhino poaching syndicate, with about 80 per cent of the horns in the province going through his hands.
An eight month intelligence-driven operation culminated in Gwala’s most recent arrest. Using a reverse sting, crime intelligence officers from Pretoria gained his trust by selling him rhino horn on multiple occasions. The horns were supplied by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. In the final move, in the rural community of Manguzi (15km south of the Mozambique-South Africa border), a crime intelligence agent handed over a 5kg horn and received residual money from the previous sale. At that point a Special Task Team member jumped out of the boot of the agent’s car.
According to a recent report by Conservation Action Trust, South Africa's conviction rate for rhino poachers last year was a pitiful 15 per cent.
The alleged kingpin attempted to disarm the Special Task Team member, severely beating and biting him, and then he got into his car and attempted to run him over. Back-up arrived and Gwala was arrested.
The magistrate at the time released six of Gwala's implicated luxury vehicles seized under the Prevention of Organised Crime Act. The South African Police Services immediately obtained a court order to repossess the vehicles, but when the Asset Forfeiture Unit arrived at Gwala’s house, he had a five litre container of petrol and threatened to burn the vehicles if the officers didn’t back off. The vehicles then ‘disappeared’ and only one has been recovered.
According to a recent report by Conservation Action Trust, South Africa's conviction rate for rhino poachers last year was a pitiful 15 per cent. I have been following rhino poaching cases closely in the KwaZulu-Natal province, and when certain magistrates are in control poachers will often take the route of pleading guilty and then their sentencing is to pay off a fine over 12 to 36 months; no jail time. In Kruger (Skukuza) courtrooms the sentences overall are much harsher, most often with bail denied and sentences up to 30 years.
Much of my time is spent writing stories from the frontline, and rangers right across KZN tell me that they sometimes see tracks of poachers they have previously arrested just before they're due to appear in court. Rangers are out their risking their lives every day to save this iconic species, only for poachers to be consistently set free. Instead of the law acting as a deterrent it could arguably be fuelling the crisis.
On April 10th the revered Public Protector of South Africa, Thuli Madonsela, accepted the case I put forward to her and opened up a preliminary investigation into corruption enabling rhino poaching. It was a resurgence of hope for a conservation community suffering from fatigue.
At current rate some experts believe that rhinos will become extinct in the wild by 2020, unless something drastic is done. Never in the history of South Africa’s poaching crisis has a rhino kingpin actually gone to jail. The case of Dumisani Gwala is being closely watched and the people of South Africa and Global Citizens worldwide are demanding justice.
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