Corruption Facilitates Rhino Poaching in South Africa

by Graeme Gissing, Science Writer

The Arrest of Dumisani Gwala

In December of 2015, the South African authorities seemed to strike a significant and symbolic blow against rhino poaching with the arrest of alleged poaching kingpin, Dumisani Gwala. After a successful sting operation, Gwala along with two co-accused faced 10 charges relating to the illegal possession of rhino horn.

However, two years after their arrest, any hope for swift justice seemed to evaporate with the allowance of a 15th postponement in the trial against the alleged poaching syndicate boss by the South African courts.

Corruption in South Africa’s Courts Now, according to Alastair Leithead of BBC news, the failure to successfully and adequately prosecute poachers in South Africa may be the result of a corrupt judiciary. Based on information provided by a confidential informant who served as a middleman to poachers, bribes from rhino-horn smugglers were received by lawyers and passed on to members of an organized court syndicate. In the Gwala case, the lawyer at the center of the bribery scheme, Welcome Ngwenya, allegedly paid bribes provided by Gwala directly to a magistrate.

Moreover, in a damning allegation, the informant named the presiding magistrate, Kwazi Shandu, of agreeing to accept money to prolong the case. Shandu denies the allegation. Far from being an isolated example, the BBC alleges that a report for the Magistrates' Commission contains the names of prosecutors, lawyers, and other court officials that indicate a widespread pattern of corruption. More than three years after being more than 20 court appearances, Gwala's trial has yet to begin and he remains free on bail.

A Threat to Rhino Populations

In January of 2018, the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, released the latest rhino poaching numbers for South Africa. A total of 1,028 rhino were poached in 2017, slightly down from 1,054 in 2016.

Although even such a small gain is a victory in the fight against rhino poaching, if the ultimate arbiter of justice - the South African courts - are unable to effectively obtain convictions and provide the appropriate punishment, poaching pressure will remain unnecessarily high. In the same release, Minister Molewa announced that 502 rhino poachers were arrested in 2017.

We can only hope that the exposure of deep, pervasive, and widespread corruption within the courts will lead to a judicial overhaul and provide an avenue of fair and appropriate justice for these accused individuals.