Direct jail sentences a win in fight against South Africa’s illegal wildlife trade


Sheree Bega, Mail & Guardian

Date Published

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A six-year jail sentence for a man who smuggled 1 100 Emperor scorpions, 42 Bell’s hingeback tortoises and a water lizard. Seventeen years imprisonment for elephant poachers in the Kruger National Park. A 10-year jail sentence for a pangolin poacher.

These are some of the successful convictions highlighted by Frances Craigie, the chief director of enforcement at the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment, at a conference on countering the illegal wildlife trade in Southern Africa last week. Good Governance Africa and the Attorney General Alliance–Africa hosted the three-day event.

“We are really beginning to see the efforts over many years of getting direct imprisonment for these matters,” she said.

Craigie, who addressed delegates on the difficulties and opportunities in prosecuting wildlife crime in South Africa, had earlier shown a table of the security priorities in South Africa. Under the types of crime reported over a five-year period (2015-16 to 2019-20), there were 100 372 murders, for example. Between 2015 and 2020, the country recorded 4620 rhino poaching incidents.

“So how do you go into a court and show that those are the cases, but murders were 100 372? … You need to have these conversations with the prosecuting authority, with the magistrates, to say despite the fact that these are the figures, the wildlife issues and the environmental issues are just as important.

She said it was important to understand the number of dockets in the court system and how full the court rolls are. “And, I’m not even including issues here around state capture, corruption, all of those other offences that have really taken more prominence in South Africa in the last few years.”


A focus of the National Integrated Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking, which is awaiting cabinet approval, prioritises the need for collaboration to break the illicit value chain of wildlife trafficking.

“How do you actually make sure that you are working together and that you have dedicated investigators that are working with dedicated prosecutors but that you’re also ensuring that you’re improving your relationships with all the other departments that have a role to play,” she said.

The strategy is all about working with all agencies such as the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks), the State Security Agency and the South African Revenue Service customs, for example.

Improved integration and coordination has helped law enforcement track cases in pangolin trafficking, for example. “We know, as soon as there’s an arrest that information comes through, the prosecutors are tracking the cases. So, between 2020 to 2021, we know … 43 pangolins were seized and we track the sentences, and resources that can go [to court] and argue in aggravation of sentence.”

Specialist Prosecutors

Craigie said that environmental dockets are sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) office for screening. This allows the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to identify “tendencies and links” between cases and to formulate a strategy for the prosecution.

Complicated, high profile and crime syndicates cases are referred at an early stage of the investigation even before an arrest has been made. Specialist prosecutors are appointed for these investigations as opposed to the traditional approach of forwarding a fully investigated docket to the prosecutor to make a decision whether to prosecute.

“There are very high conviction rates for wildlife crime cases following decisions to prosecute,” Craigie said, explaining that South Africa has dedicated and experienced prosecutors.

Average Sentences

“Generally, if you’ve killed a rhino your average sentence is between 10 and 15 years direct imprisonment in South Africa. If you have a lot of these other charges … particularly around illegal possession of firearms, that could go up to 20 or even 30 years imprisonment.

“Possession of horn is around five years … plus organised crime, you can add another 10 years to that sentence,” she said.

Important types of evidence are being used, especially in relation to animal DNA, through RhODIS (Rhino DNA Index system), Craigie said.

“We have individualised rhinos in South Africa, for example, we make a seizure overseas and those samples come back to us in South Africa, we can pinpoint exactly the horn that was found, and where it came from. Is it from a poaching scene or from a stockpile, because every time a rhino is dehorned, DNA is taken, every time a vet does routine work on a rhino DNA is taken.”

All this information goes into the central database and becomes an “extremely powerful investigative tool”, she said, adding that work is now starting with other key species, such as cheetahs and lions.

From April to July this year, the Skukuza regional court, the flagship court for rhino court cases, finalised 23 cases involving 29 accused with sentences ranging from admission of guilt fines to long-term imprisonment and a significant number of guilty pleas. “This is massive in terms of the impact a court like this is having,” Craigie said, noting how there are 150 cases still in process.

Challenges in Prosecution Process

Among the difficulties is the length of time to finalise cases. Craigie attributed this to an “overburdened” court system and “delay tactics” by the accused.

The decision to grant bail lies at the discretion of the court. “Unfortunately, many of them do get bail and continue to commit crimes,” she said, adding that South Africa needs to “stop circulating these criminals”.

There are not enough specialised prosecutors and investigators. “With the burden we have around some of the other organised crime in the country, we have some very good investigators and prosecutors, we just need more and we’re obviously working to see how you can train up certain people but then what happens? Something else becomes more important — cash in transit increases, drug trafficking increases, other real priority offences start happening and people are then moved away and have to deal with those issues.”

There are cases, too, where “people just get a slap on the wrist, where some jurisdictions will just give a 

R10 000 fine”.

Craigie later added that a public prosecution office environmental working group has been established to enhance environmental prosecutions and address centralisation of cases, which would hold its first meeting in September.

Money Laundering

In 2019, the Financial Action Task Force, a global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, assessed South Africa and found that illegal wildife trafficking is a “medium to high risk” in generating proceeds.

In response, the country’s Financial Intelligence Centre established the South African Anti-Money Laundering Integrated Task Force’s illegal wildlife trade working group, a private-public partnership between the banking sector and sector regulatory authorities.

“It’s really made a big difference in terms of what we are doing,” Craigie said. “We currently have seven cases registered for enhanced money laundering investigations.”