What's happening in Kruger is so much more than poaching

2015-05-25 15:56

South Africa seems to be in something of a mess. The international media regularly reports disputes within the ruling ANC. Allegations of inappropriately high amounts of public money being spent on the President's private residence remain unresolved. The nation's mining industry, a vital source of revenue, has been plagued by industrial disputes; resulting in terrible levels of violence. Video footage of South Africa Police Service personnel, captured by onlookers, showing apparent brutality hardly promotes confidence in officials whose role it is to uphold the rule of law and defend the public. For instance, images of someone being handcuffed to the back of a Police vehicle, and dragged along street, horrified onlookers at home and abroad; just as much as those allegedly illustrating 'death by Police' in the USA recently.

The country is also struggling to find ways in which to deal with large numbers of immigrants, many seeking to escape from problems in their homelands in neighbouring countries, and this, too, is allegedly prompting inappropriate behaviour on the part of some government officials and xenophobia among sections of South Africa society.

And, if that wasn’t bad enough, some illegal immigrants, in a very temporary fashion, are crossing the border from Mozambique and slaughtering large numbers of the country’s rhino populations in a criminally-exploitive manner.

Something of a mess? Sorry, some aspects of South Africa appear to be in a considerable mess.

I last visited South Africa in early 2011. The purpose of my visit was to assist at a training event for officials involved in wildlife law enforcement. It was one of the best events of that kind in which I ever participated during my 14 years as a UN official. The multi-agency representation was commendable. However, what was most remarkable was that several prosecutors, including a provincial Director of Public Prosecutions, had taken five days away from their offices to focus solely on wildlife crime. There aren’t many countries in the world where would one encounter such commitment on the part of prosecution authorities.

To be fair, South Africa had woken up by then to the fact that organized crime groups and networks were targeting the nation’s rhinos to meet an apparently ever-increasing demand for their horns in Asia, which was driven by seemingly ever-growing prices being paid in clandestine markets there.

I left Johannesburg at the end of the week relatively confident that South Africa would meet the challenges it was facing and, if it received sufficient, appropriate and relevant support from counterpart enforcement agencies abroad, that it would overcome the criminality it was facing. Regrettably, that confidence has been shown to have been misplaced.

I was recently invited to return to what is one of the most stunningly-beautiful countries in the world. My views were sought for a conference at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and at workshops convened by a national NGO. I also spoke at an event hosted by what I was told is regarded as a prominent and prestigious national think-tank (SAIIA). It was a brief visit of just three and a half days. But, my goodness, that was more than long enough to let me see that things have got considerably worse, very considerably worse, and for my previous confidence to almost utterly evaporate.

I left South Africa having been prompted to reflect upon a whole host of issues. I am going to focus on just one today.

Thirteen rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2007. In 2014, the total was 1,215. I was told, by various sources, that the number killed so far this year is roughly 20% more than the same period in 2014. One constantly hears the phrase ‘out of control’ and, unfortunately, it seems it may be.  It is said that, at any one time, twelve poaching gangs will be operating somewhere within Kruger National Park. Some estimates suggest that there may be as many as 6,000 people living in the general area surrounding the park who are connected, in one way or another, to poaching.

The government has appointed Major-General Johan Jooste to command and coordinate anti-poaching in the country’s national parks. He is an impressive individual. He is meant to be retired. I would not have his job (as the saying goes) for all the tea in China. That he has taken it on surely speaks volumes about the character of the man. Following his address to the UCT conference, he came in for some close and quasi-critical probing.

For instance, a member of the audience questioned the ‘militarization’ of current anti-poaching in a manner that suggested it is maybe inappropriate. The Major-General, in my opinion, answered more than effectively but let me offer my own response. The rangers in the parks, especially Kruger National Park, are being sent out to confront poaching gangs whose members are equipped with top-quality hunting rifles (to shoot rhinos) and semi- or fully-automatic firearms (to shoot rangers). If someone is firing at you with an AK-47 assault rifle, responding with a side-handled baton, Mace spray, CS gas, Taser or Glock 9mm pistol, i.e. the self-defence equipment carried by many law enforcement officers around the world, will lead to only one result – the death of the carrier.

An AK-47 assault rifle has the capacity to fire at a rate of 600 rounds a minute. Its standard magazine only holds 30 bullets, but those 30 bullets are going to come at you at one hell of a rate. An experienced shooter will be able to eject the spent magazine and insert a fresh one in a matter of seconds. The AK-47 is not the most accurate weapon in the world, but is reckoned to be able to reliably strike an adult human torso at a range of 300m. In the words of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, “Do you feel lucky?”

Although I have arrested several people carrying firearms, I have never had to face up to anyone with an AK-47. But I do know, only too well, what it is like to receive a radio message deploying you to an incident, a potentially very violent incident, where it is unacceptable to respond, “I’d like to go for my tea break now please”. I know what it is like to drive to the location of the incident as your mind imagines what will confront you. When you get there, I know how your response often has to be determined in a split-second.

Those that question the current anti-poaching tactics in South Africa ought to ask themselves, “Would I be prepared to go out and undertake what park rangers are doing?”  It is undoubtedly regrettable that law enforcement agents in South Africa have to engage in such actions, and acquire the skills necessary to cope with such violent situations, but the only alternative would seem to be that one retreats and presents an open-door to poachers.  If that is what you would prefer, then get ready to wave goodbye to rhinos and, thereafter, elephants, pangolins, etc. etc.

In one hundred recent exchanges of gunfire between rangers and poachers, not a single ranger died. I’m wary of tempting fate, but that is an incredible success rate on the part of law enforcement and long may it continue. And it is surely testimony to the standard of training, equipment and leadership rangers receive. Numbers for the ‘other side’ do not seem to be made publicly available but I heard that over 200 have been shot dead since 2008. However, it appears there is no shortage of people ready to replace casualties in the ranks of poachers. The profits to be made from rhino horn trafficking are incredible.

To try and put the number of poachers killed into some context, I found one source which records that 1,092 people died as a result of force used by the police of South Africa between 2008-2010.[i] Such statistics may horrify the general public and it would be understandable if one was prompted to ask, ‘Should any law enforcement official be entitled to use deadly force against someone who is trying to kill an animal?’ But, of course, we need to recognize that poachers died whilst en route to kill animals and came up against people whose job it was to protect them.

Anyway, I am far from convinced that we should be thinking of what is happening in Kruger National Park, and other areas of South Africa, as poaching. Anyone who reads my regular rants will realize that I regard what’s taking place as crime, organized crime. But it is much more than that; it has surely become a matter of national security.

Yes, people are expressing outrage at the number of rhinos being killed. And so they should. But why aren’t more people lobbying parliament to ask what sort of country South Africa has become where it appears to be beyond the capacity of organs of the State to put an end to this or to protect the nation and its natural resources? Indeed, they cannot seem to even slow this criminality down, let alone halt it.

The politician whose job it seems to be to coordinate responses is Minister Molewa. Minister Molewa is not the Minister of Defence, Home Affairs, Justice, Police or State Security. She is the Minister for Environmental Affairs. I mean no disrespect to Minister Molewa when I invite readers to look at the comments[ii] I made last week in Cape Town (so I don’t have to repeat them here). And please pay particular attention to the point I make about it not being fair to people when they are allocated inappropriate tasks. Hers is another job I wouldn’t have for all the tea in China.

A Committee of Inquiry has been established to examine what is taking place. It includes representatives of enforcement and security agencies but they are very much in a minority. Its terms of reference are wide-ranging. [iii] Indeed, I wonder how the Committee can possibly tackle the number of diverse issues, sixteen in all, which have been set out for it to consider. Significantly, to my mind, only two of those issues might be seen as being specifically related to combating crime. Does that tell us anything about how the government views what is happening and the context into which it has been placed?

From what I could see last week, most people regard the Committee’s number one priority as being to make a recommendation as to whether legal trade in rhino horn should take place or not. In fact, if you look at the Department of Environmental Affairs’ media release announcing the Committee, the title includes the words, “to deliberate on matters relating to a possible trade in rhino horn.” Almost every conversation I had in Cape Town, no matter to whom I talked, came round to rhino horn trade. Every workshop and conference session, regardless of the intended subject, ended up discussing rhino horn trade.

Folks, whether trade occurs or not, you have a major crime problem that isn’t going away anytime soon. Has South Africa become so crime-ridden, dispirited or apathetic that its government and citizens don’t see this for what it truly is? If heavily-armed criminals were crossing into your country to rob banks, steal diamonds, rape women, or kidnap children and carry them off to be trafficked into sex slavery, on as regular a basis as is happening with rhinos, what would your government’s response be? What would you expect it to be? Which Minister would coordinate the response? If you established a Committee of Inquiry, what would its terms of reference be? You can probably bet that trade would not be viewed as a matter for consideration.

The Major-General, his staff, and their counterparts around the country, don’t need a group of people to sit deliberating trade. They need people to come up with innovative and imaginative ways in which they can be supported. And they need that support NOW. While that happens, politicians in South Africa should maybe reflect upon how secure their country is, how they view what is occurring within its borders, and how ready and capable State and provincial agencies are to combat crime.

You know what’s really depressing about all this? It could probably be so, so worse. If a similar concentration of rhinos had been in most other African countries, they’d have been wiped out by now. The world should think itself lucky that South Africa is the primary guardian of this species.

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[i] http://www.loc.gov/law/help/police-weapons/south-africa.php

[ii] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-real-issue-john-m-sellar-obe-frgs?trk=mp-reader-card

[iii] https://www.environment.gov.za/mediarelease/molewa_introduced_committeeinquiry

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