/ 18 July 2023

Corruption at the helm of wildlife crimes, Wildlife Justice Commission report finds

Wildlife Crimes
Corruption is the main enabler for wildlife crimes, with rangers, who are meant to protect nature, at the centre of these crimes, according to the Wildlife Justice Commission

Corruption is the main enabler for wildlife crimes, with rangers, who are meant to protect nature, at the centre of these crimes, according to the Wildlife Justice Commission, an international foundation combating wildlife crime. 

According to its latest report, Dirty Money: The Role of Corruption in Enabling Wildlife Crime, criminals can easily move illegal goods such as rhino horns across borders by bribing officials at border control checkpoints. 

This “turning a blind eye” behaviour counteracts the criminal justice system, the report notes. Some officials accept payments for protecting or not prosecuting traffickers, selling back seized contraband, or taking bribes to secure bail or the release of offenders from custody.  

“Corruption greases the wheels of the illegal wildlife trade, facilitating the movement of wildlife shipments along all stages of the supply chain from source to market, and serving criminal networks by obstructing the criminal justice response, allowing them to operate with impunity,” the report says. 

Some examples

The Wildlife Justice Commission’s report contains several cases that paint a picture of wildlife crimes, including that of a leader of a rhino poaching network who worked with rangers in Kruger National Park. The leader received information on where the rhinos were and deployed his poaching teams to those locations. 

The Mail & Guardian previously reported that people get into these corrupt activities because of unemployment, greed or being threatened or forced by poaching syndicates. 

Those who act against poachers can be killed as happened with Anton Mzimba, the head ranger at Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, which forms part of the greater Kruger National Park. He was shot dead outside his home in Edinburgh in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga.

In July, the Mail & Guardian reported on Njabulo Mbatha, a former employee of Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park who was fired when he was linked to rhino poaching syndicates. He was arrested after Gauteng authorities received a tip-off that he and Mozambican Armando Amosse Chingo were in possession of rhino horns poached in KwaZulu-Natal.

This corruption has caused distrust between rangers and their employees, according to a study on Kruger National Park by the Enhancing Africa’s Response to Transnational Organised Crime (Enact) programme funded by the European Union.  

“Corruption, mistrust, and suspicion have poisoned relations in the park. Discipline has crumbled and staff are demoralised, disaffected, and feel unappreciated,” states the study.  

It also found that people working in Kruger don’t have a healthy working environment, because of the lack of trust.  

“‘It is toxic. Imagine what it does to relations being in a position where 40% or more of your workforce is working against you. Game guards, rangers, trail guides, protection services, and housekeeping staff have been arrested. Section rangers are forced to plan deployments on whom they can trust and can’t,” said an anonymous SANParks official quoted in the study.  

Combatting wildlife crime and corruption 

The Wildlife Justice Commission report says the solutions to address wildlife crime and corruption are available to law enforcement agencies “but they must be applied in a more coordinated way to address this problem”. 

These mechanisms include establishing solid investigative and prosecuting units. Law enforcement across the board needs to be coordinated so that wildlife criminals can be brought to book.

Action must also be taken to “to reduce and eradicate corruption harms, particularly the associated erosion of institutions, environmental damage, and threats to human life”, says the report. 

This action involves the criminal justice chain consisting of investigation, formal charging, prosecution, adjudication and sentencing. 

To curb corruption, there also needs to be transparency about seizures of illegal goods. This reduces the risks of seized products being sold on the black market, or leaving officers susceptible to bribes from traffickers to release the seized shipment.

“Publicly reporting seizures at the appropriate time and in a way that will not compromise ongoing investigations is good practice to increase transparency and accountability for the confiscated contraband and to support information sharing” reads the Wildlife Justice Commission’s report.

Lesego Chepape is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa