Globally, environmental destruction is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Why then, the apparent complacency from government in the face of South Africa’s biodiversity crisis?

An average of two skirmishes a week occur in remote areas of the Kruger National Park between poachers and park rangers. According to Major General Jooste, Commanding Officer of SANParks Special Projects, up to 40 poachers are within the park’s boundaries at any given time; park rangers carry AK47s and a psychological support programme is available to ranger family members.

But it’s not only rhinos that are suffering in the face of environmental crime, so too are other species of flora and fauna under threat from poaching and trade. Cycads, various succulents, rare reptiles, pangolins and abalone, are just a few on a long list of threatened indigenous species. Whole ecosystems of fragmented coastal forest and overfished marine areas are also enduring immense pressure from over population, development and pollution.

Due to corrupt officials and the porous nature of South Africa’s  borders, tourism also creates an ideal platform for illegal wildlife trade. Foreign collectors posing as tourists can and do have devastating effects on sensitive ecosystems. “The Western Cape is particularly sensitive to this kind of crime, due to its unique and abundant biodiversity and its popularity among tourists,” says Biodiversity Enforcement Manager for Cape Nature, Paul Gildenhuys.

South Africa has been recognised for its progressive environmental law. However, the nine different sets of provincial legislation make for a complex system creating loopholes that allow criminals to slip through the cracks and authorities to ‘pass-the buck’.

A case between the NSPCA and the Eastern Cape government for permits issued in contravention of NEMBA for the removal of elephant calves from the wild highlights this situation. The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) claimed the permit application was the province’s mandate and a need for national government to investigate was unnecessary – even though the permits were granted in contravention of a national law. And the DEA is not legally required to pursue the matter. So although conservation is a joint responsibility between national and provincial governments, the devolution of powers allows both parties to escape their obligations when they so choose and, as a result, loopholes are created in conservation law that allow provincial legislation to conflict with national law. 

The staggering number of day-to-day crimes that the Judicial Department contends with, coupled with a lack of political will and resources, more often than not allow crimes against the environment to be pushed to the bottom of the pile – particularly those that are deemed of little significance.

In the Garden Route, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) laid charges against a property’s body corporate for the illegal removal of endangered forest, but a month later the state prosecutor declined prosecution, implying that the crime was not worth pursuing and that forest preservation was not a legal priority.  It was only after DAFF sought private legal aid that the case was reopened.

“If the state had the required resources and ability to properly investigate and prosecute these types of cases it would not have been necessary for private legal intervention,” says attorney, Hardy Mills.

Online trade and the monetary value of certain species has pushed biodiversity crime on a par with other forms of organised crime such as narcotics and human trafficking and therefore should be dealt with as such by government.

But in order for harsher penalties to make an impact, conviction rates need to be successful. However as Rynette Coetzee, former Field Officer for Endangered Wildlife Trust, says: “All the provinces are experiencing high capacity problems and severe budget constraints. Many prosecutors don’t specialise in biodiversity crimes and have countless other cases to deal with, and they simply do not feel that wildlife cases are a priority.”

At the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos in October last year, a document was distributed that proposed the imposition of more stringent sentences for crimes involving rhinos, elephants and other listed threatened or protected species by changing them to schedule  offences, with a minimum sentence of 15 years. No response has been received to this proposal

Although many environmental cases fall through the cracks, there are success stories of arrests made for illegal collecting and trafficking of fauna and flora. According to Gildenhuys, these cases can be attributed to the joint co-operation of relevant departments such as SAPS, the Hawks, Marine Enforcement and Cape Nature.

It is hoped that arrests of this nature will become more commonplace with the move by the Environmental Management Inspectorate to educate prosecutors on environmental legislation. Workshops held regularly with the Justice Training College on the complexities of biodiversity law, have resulted in a dedicated environmental advocate in each province and a greater number of prosecutors across the country giving precedence to environmental offences. The Western Cape Environmental Crime Forum has also been established to combat the growing amount of environmental crimes.

And recently, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations have been updated to place greater accountability on individuals for side-stepping the required activities set out by EIA planning. 

South Africans have a constitutional right to a healthy environment and the government has a constitutional obligation to protect the environment through reasonable legislation and other measures.

Perhaps a holistic approach is needed by government that includes crime, economic and environmental authorities to find viable solutions to slow down the speed at which crime is devastating South Africa’s biodiversity.