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Skukuza Court Archives - Rhino Review

Kruger Park rangers accused of poaching back on the job (South Africa)

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Landé Willemse, The Citizen | December 10, 2019

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Four Kruger National Park (KNP) rangers are back at work after they were arrested on poaching-related charges earlier this year, reports Lowvelder.

The four accused were arrested in two separate incidents and appeared in the Skukuza Court in January and February respectively.

“We can confirm that the four are now back at work,” said Reynold Thakhuli, SANParks acting head of corporate communications.

In January 2019, the media reported that Nzima Joe Shihlangu, 32, and Lucky Mkansi, 30, were arrested on January 15 after authorities believed they were allegedly involved in rhino poaching incidents at the KNP.

The duo was arrested at the Crocodile Bridge Section closest to the Mozambican border.

They were each granted R10,000 bail and were instructed not to have any contact with other KNP rangers while SANParks’ internal investigations were under way.

In a separate incident, Hendrik Silinda and Musa Mlambo were arrested in February in the park on poaching-related incidents.

Thakhuli added that bail conditions were set at the discretion of judges and that they were not aware of any changes to them thus far.

Lowvelder is investigating and will publish findings soon.

 

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

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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 Change.org 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.

Business as usual at Skukuza Court (South Africa)

By Antipoaching, Conservation, News No Comments
Landé Willemse, Lowvelder | September 30, 2019

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Elise Daffau, of Stop Rhino Poaching, earlier this week expressed her concern that no official communication had been sent through to this environmental court. “I am concerned that the magistrates will start referring cases to other courts.”

Original photo as published by Lowvelder

However, Judge President of the Mpumalanga Division of the High Court, judge Francis Legodi, apparently on Wednesday afternoon sent through official communication that the court is to proceed as normal.

Chrispin Phiri, spokesman for justice and correctional services, said the minister has called for the moratorium to get a proper briefing on what the understanding is, and the motivation for moving the court.

“Some of the important role players who needed to be informed of this move, were never made aware of it.”

This followed a very low-key decision, allegedly by Naomi Engelbrecht, current Regional Court president, to close down Skukuza Regional Court and move it almost 100 kilometres away from the Kruger National Park.

People close to the fight against poaching, specifically rhino poaching, were surprised by the decision, as the court has been vital in reducing rhino poaching statistics. These statistics for the first six months of 2019 were lower than the same time period of last year.

Skukuza court closure put on hold by Justice Department (South Africa)

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Landé Willemse, Lowvelder | September 20, 2019

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An unexpected decision to close down Skukuza Regional Court and move it almost 100 kilometres away from the Kruger National Park has been stopped by the Department of Justice.

The low-key decision of suddenly closing this valuable environmental court baffled people close to the fight against poaching, specifically rhino poaching.

Chrispin Phiri, spokesman for the justice ministry, said they had no knowledge of the decision, and expected full disclosure.

“We have made the minister aware of this motion of closing down the court and had put a temporary stop on the closing of Skukuza Court until we can get behind the reasons why the decision was made.”

Phiri said they understood how important this court is.

Original photo as published by The Lowvelder.

The judge president of Mpumalanga, Judge Francis Legodi, said he had started an investigation into the matter.

“The issue of closure of Skukuza Court has been brought to my attention and I am presently consulting with relevant stakeholders concerning the alleged closure of the court. I may mention it has always been my view that courts must be brought closer to the victims of crime for obvious reasons, and this is still my view, which has been made clear to relevant stakeholders in the past.

“For this, I would still prefer Skukuza Court to continue to operate in Skukuza. However, a final decision in this regard will be taken once I have consulted with other stakeholders.”

Skukuza Court Renowned for Fighting Rhino Poaching

Skukuza Court has been recognised, both nationally and internationally, as the heart of the fight against rhino poaching in South Africa. Serious cases are tried in this court, including cases in which suspects are linked to a poached rhino, where repeat offenders have been rearrested, where syndicates are involved and where rangers are arrested for rhino poaching.

The court boasts a 99.8 per cent conviction rate and up until recently had a 100 per cent success rate in opposed bail applications.

Since its inception, the court has finalised approximately 80 cases, with sentences ranging between 12 and 40 years. There are currently 72 cases still on the court roll with new cases being added almost weekly.

Elise Daffue of Stop Rhino Poaching, earlier this week confirmed that concerted efforts to close the court has been lurking since mid-2017.

“So much effort, unseen, dangerous and often thankless, goes into arresting a rhino poacher. The only thing that keeps our rangers going is the knowledge that, thanks to their efforts, these suspects won’t be back to poach and that they will receive their due justice in court.”

Skukuza Regional Court has set the bar for solid rhino convictions in South Africa and has been the biggest success story of the challenging campaign to save the rhino.

“Losing this court would be a considerable blow, not just to our dwindling rhino population, but very much to the rangers who give everything to keep them safe.”

South Africa’s previous minister of environmental affairs, the late Dr Edna Molewa, welcomed the opening of the Skukuza Court in the Kruger National Park in April 2017 by stating, “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 other related activities.”

Ike Phaahla, spokesman for SANParks, said they were investigating. “We have heard of the rumour and are working closely with the judge president to investigate the matter.”

According to sources close to the investigation, the decision to close the court was allegedly made by Naomi Engelbrecht, the current regional court president.

Engelbrecht was not available for comment.