Rhino poaching – not just an environmental crime

By Helge Denker - 13. August 2020

FAR-REACHING IMPACTS ... Poaching not only kills rhinos – it also destroys livelihoods, risks lives and undermines national development goals.

FOR two decades after Namibia's independence, the country experienced minimal commercial poaching.

Over the past 10 years this has rapidly changed. Wildlife crime has skyrocketed and Namibia has rallied to counter the surge. A high of 97 poached rhinos estimated for 2015 has been reduced to 45 in 2019. 

It's obvious why Namibia has become a prime target. Namibia and South Africa now protect the most significant rhino populations left in Africa. Poaching is here to stay – either until radical changes stop the demand for illegal rhino horn in Asia, or there are no rhinos left.

At face value, fighting rhino poaching is about saving a charismatic mammal from extinction. Each poached rhino is one more animal lost out of a once healthy population. But what are the wider impacts? What is a rhino worth? Can its value even be defined?

Before evaluating the impacts of the death of a rhino, it's important to note that rhino poaching involves firearms. This creates a direct threat to rhino rangers, security forces – and the public. Most guns used in poaching are unregistered, illegal firearms (often automatic weapons). This poses a national security risk.

Wildlife crime is a facet of organised crime – one that causes significant social disruption. Unscrupulous dealers often draw rural Namibians with excellent 'bush skills' but limited livelihood options into a life of crime.

Defining the worth of a rhino is more complex than it might appear. Like all large, charismatic animals, rhinos have traditional cultural values and form part of our natural heritage, which should be preserved for future generations.

Rhinos also have an important biodiversity value. A recent South African study highlights the central role white rhinos play in grassland ecology. The role of black rhinos in countering bush encroachment has not been studied in detail, but is evident.

Rhinos have a variety of economic values – as tourist attractions, breeding animals or legal conservation-hunting trophies. They have directly associated personal livelihood values for the people deriving income and employment from their presence. In Namibia, rhino beneficiaries are often communal area residents with few livelihood options.

The tourism focus in a number of community conservancies is almost exclusively on rhino tracking, with significant income being generated for the communities.

These interlinked tourism values are difficult to accurately quantify. On the other hand, live sales of rhinos can fetch N$500 000 or more per animal.

The rhino horn currently has no legal value. The African Rhino Specialist Group of the IUCN recommends that estimated illegal values should not be publicised, as this may fuel poaching. The worth of rhino horn in any case varies significantly from its source to end markets.

The poachers who kill a rhino usually get low payments compared to the risks they take. At end markets in China or Vietnam, the rhino horn fetches very high prices.

The willingness to pay those prices in Asia – for a product with no scientifically proven medicinal properties – is creating havoc in Africa.

A 2016 study in South Africa concluded that rhinos have become a liability rather than an asset for private game reserves in that country! The cost of security measures and the risk of loss were higher than the rewards. Rhino owners and custodians in Namibia face a similar challenge.

Small populations on some private reserves and in some community conservancies have been wiped out. The linked tourism potential has collapsed. Poaching is not just killing rhinos – it's destroying an economic sector.

Namibia has only recently rebuilt its rhino populations after historic lows prior to independence – and has invested huge resources to do so. The custodianship scheme has re-established black rhinos in former ranges on freehold land and in community conservancies.

White rhinos (which had become locally extinct in Namibia around the 1850s) were reintroduced from South Africa. A viable population has since been re-established through strategic translocations. Rhino poaching is eroding this significant investment.

To curb the poaching onslaught of the past decade, Namibia has also been forced to invest vast resources into conservation, anti-poaching, law enforcement and the judiciary.

Poaching syndicates are to blame that these funds have not gone to health or education or other urgent national development needs. Clearly, wildlife crime is an economic and social as well as environmental crime – with far-reaching impacts.

The Rhino Files: Punishing offenders

By Helge Denker - 06. August 2020

CONSERVATION RECOGNITION … The status of Namibia's black rhinos has been revised from 'vulnerable' to 'near threatened' (i.e. less vulnerable to extinction) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Photo: Helge Denker

The Rhino Files are periodic articles exploring the complexity of rhino conservation in Namibia.

WHEN a rhino is poached, outraged environmentalists often call for the most severe measures of punishment, such as shooting the poachers on sight.

Shooting poachers dead doesn't stop poaching. The poachers – usually rural Namibians with bush skills – are at the lowest rung on the criminal ladder. They can be quickly replaced by others trying to make some cash.

Understanding poachers and thus being able to catch and convict them – often before they can even kill a rhino – is a more constructive approach.

During the first half of 2020, 88 suspects were arrested on charges related to rhinos, with 30% of these arrested for conspiring to poach before they could kill a rhino. The arrests have not just included poachers, but a large number of middlemen, dealers and abettors – and several high-level kingpins.

This has disrupted established traffic routes, has brought other middlemen into the open and led to more arrests.

Such cascading clean-ups of criminal networks are only possible through determined, in-depth investigations – rather than shooting poachers dead.

But what is an appropriate penalty for poaching or conspiring to poach a rhino? In a court ruling at Okahandja in May 2020, six perpetrators were convicted in two separate cases of conspiring to poach rhinos. What should be the criteria for deciding suitable sentences?

Three main aspects are usually considered during sentencing: the seriousness of the crime, the circumstances of the perpetrator and the interests of society (known as 'public interest'). Each has its own complexity.

The prosecution presented insights into this complexity to the magistrate. The cases were well-prepared and all suspects pleaded guilty.

Namibian law stipulates that the intent to poach and actual poaching are treated with equal seriousness – which is apparent in the magistrate's ruling. The main perpetrator in the first case received a fine of N$58 000 or eight years in prison for conspiring to poach rhino, with a part of the sentence conditionally suspended for five years.

The main perpetrator in the second case had aimed a rifle at security personnel during the arrest. He thus received a more severe overall sentence of N$80 000 or 11,5 years, again with part of the sentence conditionally suspended for five years.

The message to criminals is clear – the chances are high that perpetrators will be caught even before they kill a rhino. When they are caught, they will not be let off lightly.

It is true that the maximum penalties related to rhino poaching inscribed in the revised legislation of 2017 are N$25 million and 25 years in prison. This is a clear recognition of the seriousness of the crime.

Yet when considering the circumstances of perpetrators, it must be remembered that poachers are mostly rural Namibians attempting to escape poverty – who carry the highest risk for the least rewards.

It is the international kingpins and the traffickers at end markets in Asia who make the big money – and drive wildlife crime in Namibia by recruiting local poachers and abettors. Last year, four Chinese nationals were each sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempting to smuggle rhino horns out of the country. They had been arrested in 2014. The sentence in the drawn-out case was increased to 20 years after an unsuccessful appeal.

Sentencing is the final measure of the effectiveness of law enforcement.

The current results in Namibia show the commitment of all agencies to fight wildlife crime.

Wildlife Crime and the Law

By Helge Denker - 30. July 2020

BUSTED ... Five suspects in possession of four elephant tusks were successfully apprehended by the police in the Zambezi region who have made successful arrests after receiving a tip-off from a community member about their whereabouts. Photo: Contributed/File

“THEY just get out on bail and do it again” – this is a widespread public sentiment regarding crime in Namibia, and wildlife crime in particular.

There are many misconceptions about law enforcement and the judiciary. Bail is just one of them. At the end of 2019, the number of suspects out on bail amounted to less than 20% for all crimes related to high-value wildlife (pangolin, elephant, rhinos).

The law is designed to protect the fundamental rights and values of society. These include the protection of the country's biodiversity and the right to a healthy environment. They also include the right to human dignity, the right to personal liberty, and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty – all of which are entrenched in the Namibian Constitution.

Importantly, the trial – not the arrest – of an accused is the central component of ensuring the fundamental values of society are protected. Arrests are often celebrated as a victory (and the granting of bail is often seen as a failure), yet an arrest is only one of the means of ensuring that a person accused of a crime will stand trial for the charges being faced.

A suspect does not need to be arrested to stand trial. The suspect can also be served with a court summons, ordering him or her to appear in court. In situations where a summons is deemed ineffective, the suspect is arrested and charged with the crime.

Depending on the circumstances of the crime, the suspect may then be remanded in custody until the trial is held, or released on bail.

Bail is not specifically covered in the Namibian Constitution, but is governed by the Criminal Procedure Act. In this country, an arrested suspect has the right to apply for bail, but the onus is on the applicant. Bail consists of two aspects: a bail amount that must be paid, and a set of bail conditions that must be adhered to.

Many people see bail as a form of punishment directly related to the crime. It is not. Both the bail amount and the related conditions are intended to ensure that the accused will not attempt to evade justice, but will stand trial. If an accused absconds, the bail amount is forfeited to the state and a new warrant of arrest is issued. The accused becomes a fugitive from the law.

The higher the risk of absconding, the higher the bail amount and the stricter the bail conditions will be. Both will be directly linked to the personal circumstances of the accused. A person with significant financial means facing a serious charge, and thus the likelihood of a lengthy prison sentence, might consider running from justice.

A foreign national may attempt to skip the country. All such factors are considered. Bail conditions usually include travel restrictions and the need to report to a police station at regular intervals.

A member of a rural community who has taken to poaching to feed his family and escape poverty may not have the financial means to pay a high bail amount, but may also not pose a significant risk of absconding. A wealthy international businessman acting as a wildlife crime kingpin is in a completely different position.

Other strong arguments for opposing bail are the risks of an accused interfering with ongoing investigations, or committing new crimes. Wildlife crime always consists of a network of poachers, dealers and abettors. A suspect released on bail may well jeopardise the identification and arrest of other suspects – or get involved in further crimes.

Investigators need to provide valid reasons for opposing bail to prosecutors, who in turn present these during bail applications. Proactive collaboration between investigators and prosecutors are thus important.

While complex investigations may take a long time, it is in the interest of justice – for the accused and the state – to finalise cases as soon as possible. If a case is simple and all investigations have been completed, it can even go straight to trial without a bail process.

This should be the aim of prosecutors during all straightforward cases, to address the challenge of processing the high number of wildlife crime cases in Namibia.

Over 440 wildlife crime cases were registered during 2019. About 40% of these were related to the three main high-value targets. At the end of 2019, 72% of suspects accused of crimes related to high-value species were in custody awaiting trial, 8% had been convicted and 15% were out on bail. The remainder had been acquitted, or the charges had been withdrawn. Less than 1% of all accused had managed to abscond.

The statistics clearly show that the percentage of suspects out on bail is actually small, and that very few abscond. Conversely, the number of finalised cases is also low. Wildlife crime is obviously placing an additional burden on the Namibian judicial system, which is already faced with a great variety of challenges. Many of Namibia's prisons are perpetually overcrowded, sometimes exceeding their designed capacity by over 80%.

Improvements can undoubtedly be made to the judicial system. Yet crime is a societal issue. Judicial refinements will only be effective in the long term if they go hand in hand with broader reforms. The granting or refusal of bail is an important, but very small aspect of Namibia's justice system.

Title-Photos: Helge Denker

* Helge Denker is a Namibian freelance writer-naturalist based in Windhoek. He also compiles information on conservation issues and the environment for various applications, with a current focus on countering wildlife crime. At present he works with the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism's Intelligence and Investigation Unit and the Nampol Protected Resources Division to combat wildlife crime.