University of Kent news centre

In a major rhino poaching trial in South Africa, cellphones can be linked to at least two of the accused. The University’s Professor Keith Somerville comments on the increasing ability of the police and wildlife authorities to use technology to track and create connections between poachers and smugglers.

‘The poaching of rhino for their horns remains a major conservation crisis in South Africa. No figures have been given for the number killed in 2018, but it is likely to be high, with increasing numbers of rhinos killed in KwaZulu-Natal and on private game reserves and sanctuaries.

‘This is because of improved security and intelligence gathering to stop poaching in Kruger National park, formerly the focus of poaching for horn that is smuggled out to Vietnam and China.

‘But poaching is not declining, despite successes in Kruger, it is shifting its focus to other areas where protection is not so efficient and enforcement so stringent. There have been marginal drops in rhinos poached over the last two years, but it is still running at over 1,000 a year.

‘Part of the problem is that while those actually carrying out the poaching may periodically be caught or even killed in shoot-outs with rangers, the police and even the army, the middlemen, the crime bosses who run smuggling syndicates and the corrupt officials and politicians who give them protection are rarely brought to court.

But one trial, in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape province, is showing the increasing ability of the police and wildlife authorities to use technology to track and create connections between poachers and smugglers.

‘Giving evidence at the trial of three Zimbabweans, Jabulani Ndlovu, Forget Ndlovu and Sikhimbuzo Ndlovu (linked to 13 separate poaching incidents in the province), Carmen van Tichelen of the Rhino Security Unit said cellphone (mobile phone) activity and numbers had been linked to poaching cases dating back to 2014 in KwaZulu-Natal.

‘As the trial continues a key part will be whether cellphone and other evidence can lead to identification of other links in the poaching chain. In the past this has proved difficult and the so-called rhino horn kingpins often escape or if charged endlessly delay being brought before the courts.

‘Tom Milliken of the wildlife trade monitoring body, TRAFFIC, has repeatedly blamed these problems on the dysfunctional South African National Prosecuting Authority and the Crime Intelligence unit of the South African Police.

‘This has been echoed by Cathy Dean, CEO of the Save the Rhino NGO, who laments the inability of the justice system to do anything to speed up the prosecution of suspected poaching bosses who have been charged but not come to court, like Hugo Ras, Dawie Groenewald, ‘Big Joe’ Nyalunga and Dumisani Gwala, whose trials have been repeatedly delayed by incompetence in the justice system or the failure of the law enforcement and prosecuting authorities to make it a priority.

Gwala’s trial  finally started in May, after 20 adjournments since Gwala’s arrest in 2014, but is likely to be a long haul with his well-paid lawyers using every delaying and obfuscatory tactic in the book.

It is hoped that the political demise of Jacob Zuma, under whom the justice and law enforcement systems became a corruption-ridden shambles, will eventually lead to the reform of the system and more robust policing and prosecution of high-profile poachers, smugglers and gang bosses.’

Professor Keith Somerville is a Member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent and is a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London.