The illegal trade in wildlife has become a major form of transnational organised crime that is damaging economies, undermining public safety and good governance in many regions around the world. And Southern Africa is no exception. “Criminals involved in wildlife crime are not involved only in wildlife crime,” stressed Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) programme manager: wildlife and trade programme Ashleigh Dore. She was talking to Engineering News on the fringes of the recent British government-funded Regional Prosecutor Workshop on Illegal Wildlife Trade, in Kempton Park, east of Johannesburg.
“Wildlife crime should be taken seriously; not only is it a high-value crime but it [also] attracts big criminal players, who are also involved in smuggling drugs and weapons, and seek to corrupt government officials,” she explained. “It is a public security issue – not a niche ‘green’ issue. Further, wildlife crime can also damage the legitimate economy – for example, by damaging the tourist industry through the poaching of major attractions like elephants and rhinos.”
Fortunately, there is no need to persuade the national prosecution agencies of the countries of Southern Africa about the seriousness of the issue. “Our experience is that they take wildlife crime seriously,” she reported. “Our workshops are usually attended by senior personnel, dedicated to combating wildlife crimes. They have always shown great interest and there is strong demand for us to supply them with more information.”
The recent workshop was attended by representatives from Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and Swaziland, as well as South Africa. All the countries in the region have similar wildlife protection structures, with national parks services and park rangers, supported by their national police forces, customs and other enforcement agencies. “For the most part, legislation and regulation in Southern Africa is solid,” she observed. “The problem, including in South Africa, is a lack of capacity. This often requires crime related to certain species to be prioritised over crime related to other species.”
The workshop was the third in an ongoing series. Each of the three workshops had a different focus. The first looked at mutual legal assistance between the various countries in the region. The second examined their different legal systems. The third focused on transnational wildlife crime and discussed a range of issues, combining theoretical and practical (role-playing) sessions. It also served as a preparation for a global Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, funded by the UK government, which will be held in London in October.
In addition, this most recent workshop also considered tools that might be used in the prosecution of wildlife crimes, including DNA barcoding, a technique which uses DNA analysis to identify animal and plant species, or the species from which body parts or plant elements come from. In South Africa, there is a laboratory that undertakes DNA barcoding and there are two DNA barcode databases in the country – one at the University of Johannesburg and the other at the National Zoological Gardens, in Pretoria. The use of the technique to fight wildlife crime across Southern Africa is funded by international donors. Regarding concerned citizens and the fight against wildlife crimes, the EWT stresses that “everyone can help play a role and that interested people should reach out to us so we can outline ways they can support our work in the field”.
“Wildlife crime is not just about rhino poaching – it expands to various species, including plants,” highlighted Dore. “I have met really dedicated people in all the agencies I have worked with. When it comes to fighting the illegal wildlife trade in our region, I am realistically optimistic – while I fully acknowledge that we have lost a lot, there are really positive developments and successes within this landscape that must be acknowledged.”