Direct jail sentences a win in fight against South Africa’s illegal
Sheree Bega, Mail & Guardian
August 30, 2022
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
“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
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.”
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.
“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
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 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
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
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
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