In August 2019, Wendy Willson received a disturbing tip-off: three Southern African pythons had been illegally stolen from the wild and were being housed in appalling conditions at an industrial warehouse in Rustenburg.
Armed with a warrant, Willson, who was then a senior inspector at the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA), and her colleagues removed the underweight, dehydrated and stressed reptiles, which had suffered burn wounds from incorrect lighting.
What followed was more than two years of postponed court cases, docket content disappearances, pandemic delays and travelling thousands of kilometres between Johannesburg and Rustenburg for the case.
But on Monday, justice was served when the two accused pleaded guilty and were convicted in the Rustenburg regional court, in a groundbreaking judgment that has been described as the biggest legal win for reptiles in South Africa’s history.
Magistrate Samuel Maboho sentenced each of the accused to a R50 000 fine or five years imprisonment. Both were ordered to pay the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital the R80 000 in costs that it had incurred while caring for the snakes and the R5 000 the NSPCA incurred for travelling to and from court for the duration of the case. The two accused were declared unfit to own or be in charge of any reptiles or rabbits.
The hospital described the judgment as a “phenomenal precedent setting sentence for not only snakes but for all reptiles in South Africa” while the NSPCA said it would have a “lasting impact in future cases of cruelty involving reptiles”.
For Willson, who was the manager of the NSPCA’s special investigations unit in 2019, it is an extraordinary ruling for the largest snake in Southern Africa. “For a snake to set that precedent in South Africa is absolutely phenomenal.”
The information received in the tip-off indicated that the snakes were being fed live rabbits, which is illegal under the Animals Protection Act. The rabbits, too, were neglected.
“After I had finished the investigations, my colleague, NSPCA inspector Kgakgamatso Moseki of the special projects unit, who is based in the North West, applied for the necessary warrants.”
Along with North West nature conservation environmental management inspector, Mukundwa Netshithuthuni, they conducted the inspection of the premises on 13 August 2019.
The three pythons were found being kept in a cage constructed inside an industrial steel working warehouse. “Snakes are especially sensitive to vibrations and chemicals so their distress at just being in the midst of all that working machinery and paint fumes was extreme,” she said.
“Inside the cage that held the snakes were two terrified live rabbits. The whole floor of the cage and cage furniture was heavily crusted with snake and rabbit faecal matter and urine and other debris. Inappropriate lighting/heating in the enclosure had resulted in skin burns to the snakes.”
What water was available to the animals was minimal and filthy. “The rabbits, in constant threat from the snakes, had tried in desperation to dig burrows into the gravel floor. In addition to multiple animal welfare contraventions, it was also confirmed that the two warehouse owners did not have permits for the capturing and keeping of the pythons who are a specially protected species under South African legislation.”
Moseki laid charges at the Rustenburg police station while Willson rushed the pythons to the hospital for emergency treatment. There, wildlife vet Karin Lourens treated the snakes for multiple conditions including burn and bite wound injuries, infected skin lesions, mouth rot and dehydration.
The snakes underwent months of rehabilitation under the care of the hospital staff and their consulting herpetologist Grant Fairley, before they were eventually returned to the wild. Both Lourens and Fairley supplied comprehensive expert witness reports on their findings to support the case.
“The case was plagued with problems and myself and inspector Moseki spent many hours, often in our personal capacity, and undertook many trips to Rustenburg court to rectify issues that arose and fight to keep the case on the court roll,” said Willson. “We also received a fair amount of criticism and disapproval from many quarters who could not understand the relevance of this case and why time and effort was being spent on the pursuit of this case.”
She gave “huge thanks and appreciation” to Rustenburg prosecutor Dolf Smith “who stepped in when the case had stalled yet again with seemingly no way forward and agreed to assist us in getting this case finalised.
“During aggravation, prosecutor Smith read out large segments of a document I had prepared that gave an overview of the rising reptile crime in South Africa and some alarming statistics with regards to the South African python seen over the last 18 months,” said Willson of the reptiles, which are classified as vulnerable.
In his judgment, Maboho stressed the importance of preserving South Africa’s creatures and preventing such crimes from taking place in the future, “but also recognised the importance of the role that the experts and the greater community played in their dedication to rehabilitating these animals and returning them to the wild”.
Willson said: “He was saying in the handing down of this sentence and in regards to this court case, that many people will ask why, they are just snakes, but a reasonable member of society will say ‘no, we must act because our children, our grandchildren and our great grandchildren must know this species’.”