City Press (South Africa)

South Africa's Rhino poaching statistics declined in 2020 but the International Fund for Animal Welfare says the Kruger National Park remains a concern as 62% of rhinos (245 rhinos) poached were killed in the KNP.

South Africa’s Rhino poaching statistics declined in 2020 but the International Fund for Animal Welfare says the Kruger National Park remains a concern as 62% of rhinos (245 rhinos) poached were killed in the KNP

Sizwe Sama Yende,
September 26, 2021 

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Poachers usually get light jail sentences for killing wild animals, but that is about to change. At least 26 financial institutions are working closely with the SA Police Service and prosecutors to follow their ill-gotten cash trail and add money laundering to the charge sheet.

The illegal wildlife trade is now the fourth-largest criminal industry after drugs, weapons and human trafficking. It is worth about $20 billion (R294 billion) a year worldwide.

Gerald Byleveld, Investec’s head of financial crime compliance, told City Press that, historically, members of poaching syndicates were not prosecuted for money laundering because investigators were daunted by analysing financial statements, so they mostly focused on the dead animals.

That, Byleveld said, was gradually changing, as financial elements were now becoming part of the investigations.

Wednesday was World Rhino Day, which aims to draw attention to the poaching of rhino for their horns, which are sold in the Far East to be used in products like traditional medicines. Rhino poaching in South Africa has increased over the years, decimating the species and producing wealthy individuals who feed the Asian markets with horns. The Kruger National Park rhino population has decreased by 67% since 2011, according to an annual report by SANParks.

There were 10,621 white rhino – then the largest population in the world – in the park in 2011, but only 3,549 white rhino and 268 black rhino remain.

Rhino poaching fell by 33% during the hard lockdown, but the numbers are going up again, particularly in private game reserves.

Byleveld said that the SA Financial Intelligence Centre had created an anti-money laundering task force to gather intelligence on poachers and syndicates and share it with police and prosecutors.

“Tracking the money is always hard for banks because poachers run legitimate businesses on the side and we see one side of the transaction. They evade the banking system,” he said.

Byleveld said exploring the financial behaviour of wildlife poachers could expose the people they transacted with and lead to large networks of those involved. However, he said not every poacher was part of a syndicate.

Banks could not directly link transactions to poaching syndicates, he said, but unexplained wealth or unusual transactional behaviour could lead to an investigation that would then explore potential wildlife crimes.

In some cases, Byleveld said, the Asset Forfeiture Unit could lay claim to such assets:

The prevalence of cash in our economy makes this quite hard. Often other indicators such as lack of tax payments, rent and insurance cast doubts on the legitimacy of these businesses, or when the turnover is simply not commensurate with the size and scale of the ‘legitimate’ business.

“There are a number of legitimate businesses that operate in, or are associated with, legal wildlife trade and trade in wildlife products that are licensed. The illicit business is very hard to quantify with ranges of $7 billion to $23 billion annually worldwide,” he said.

“The work of corporations, and in particular financial institutions, is to continue to evaluate how their products and services can be used to facilitate illegal wildlife trade and take the necessary steps to avoid becoming part – knowingly or unknowingly – of the illegal wildlife trade supply chain.”

The task force’s report is expected to be released early next month. Its research, said Byleveld, revealed some generic profiles and financial behaviour of those involved in wildlife crimes.

“We are speaking to our international counterparts, but what South Africa has done is at the forefront in the world.”