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Small court that leads the fight against poaching faces closure (South Africa)

Matthew Savides, The Times Select | November 26, 2019

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SA’s so-called “poaching court” faces being shut down, despite it having a perfect conviction rate since 2017.

Citing logistical challenges and costs, plans are afoot to move Skukuza Regional Court, a vital cog in the war on the slaughter of rhino in the Kruger National Park, more than 100km away. It is a move activists believe will set the fight against poaching back several steps.

At the time of the court’s opening in April 2017, the late Edna Molewa, environmental affairs minister at the time, said: “Having a regional court in Skukuza will ensure that the case turnaround times for rhino poaching and related cases are expedited, thus making a significant contribution to tackling the illicit trade in rhino horn and any other related activities.”

The court dealt mainly with poaching cases because of its proximity to the Kruger National Park.

But two and a half years later, the court – which a month ago handed down a 20-year sentence to a would-be poacher bust inside the park in 2017 – may no longer operate.

It was due to close mid-October, with cases moved to the Mhala Magistrates’ Court, north of Bushbuckridge, until the justice ministry stepped in. Mpumalanga judge president Francis Legodi has launched an investigation into the matter.

Access to the court, as well as costs of staff to travel to attend the court’s periodical sittings, have been cited as reasons for the move to the Mhala regional court.

According to a response to parliamentary questions last month, the justice ministry confirmed Mpumalanga had a rhino poaching conviction rate of 100% from 101 cases since September 2016 – with 160 people convicted. Times Select understands about three dozen of those cases were heard in Skukuza. Many of these cases have been heard elsewhere, including at Mhala.

Comparatively, 210 cases have been heard across the country, including in Mpumalanga, with 11 acquittals – a conviction rate of 94.8%.

Justice ministry spokesperson Chrispin Phiri last week told Times Select there were no easy answers to the saga.

He said Skukuza’s location made it difficult for prosecutors and magistrates to attend to matters. But he also admitted moving cases to Mhala would make it difficult for experts – mostly situated in or around Kruger – to testify.

“The judge president [Legodi] has given a directive that the court should not be closed down until we find a solution. There’s no easy way out of it at this stage. Everyone is hands on deck,” he said.

But while a decision is being made, many are outraged that the closure is even being considered. A petition on calling for the court to remain open had garnered more than 104,000 signatures by Monday afternoon.

“My concern is about the motives behind the apparent lobby to close the Skukuza regional court,” said Andrew Campbell, CEO of the Game Rangers Association of Africa.

“In the interests of justice, why would anyone want to tamper with something that is working so effectively? The Skukuza court has shown to be effective in backing up the efforts of rangers on the frontline.”

Campbell added moving the court to Mhala would take rangers out of the field for extended periods when they had to testify.
“Patrolling a park the size of Kruger National Park is hard enough as it is, but when key ranger personnel are sitting in court 100km away from the park, it makes it even harder to have sufficient manpower on the ground. They face intimidation, threats and violence when travelling outside of the park,” he said.

Anti-poaching activist Jamie Joseph of Saving the Wild said Skukuza was the one court where justice was being upheld in poaching cases.

“Until Saving the Wild started exposing the corruption in the courts in Zululand, a lot of rhino poachers got off with a fine and no jail time. If we lose Skukuza court the Kruger cases will go the same way. There is just too much money and power behind these poaching syndicates. They will infiltrate the courts outside the park,” she said.

Notable Sentences:

  • October 2019 – Skukuza Regional Court sentences Carlos Sithole to 20 years in prison after he was convicted for trespassing at Kruger National Park and found in possession of an unlicensed firearm, possession of a firearm with intent to commit a crime, pointing of firearm and possession of a prohibited firearm with no serial number. He was arrested in 2015.
  • August 2019 – Skukuza Regional Court hands 10-year prison terms to Adolph Ndlovu and Abednigo Mahlabane for charges including trespassing into the Kruger National Park and possession of unlicensed firearms and ammunition. A third man, Jeffrey Mathebula, was sentenced for trespassing in a national park and fined R10,000, or two years’ imprisonment.
  • November 2018 – Skukuza Regional Court sentences Patrick Nkuna to 33 years behind bars. He and his accomplices attempted to shoot at a SANParks helicopter during the arrest. Nkuna was charged with 12 counts, including four counts of attempted murder, trespassing in a national park and possession of an illegal firearm.