Justice for Rhinos Hangs in the Balance – Help Save Skukuza Regional Court from Closure
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As a collective effort from concerned NGO’s and the public at large, the aim of this petition is to bring to your honourable attention the crisis facing Skukuza Regional Court and the consequences of the decision to close it.
The survival of rhino in the Kruger National Park, firmly fixed in the global spotlight and bolstered by millions of Rands of government investment and donor support, now hangs in the balance after the recent decision to close Skukuza Regional Court.
Skukuza Regional Court has been recognised – both nationally and internationally – as the heart of the fight against rhino poaching in South Africa.
South Africa’s previous Minister of Environmental Affairs, the late Dr Edna Molewa, welcomed the opening of the Skukuza Regional Court in the Kruger National Park in April 2017 by stating “Having a Regional Court in Skukuza will ensure that the case turnaround times for rhino poaching and related cases are expedited thus making a significant contribution to tackling the illicit trade in rhino horn and any other related activities.”
Serious cases are trialed in the Skukuza Regional Court, including cases where suspects are linked to a poached rhino, where repeat offenders have been rearrested, where syndicates are involved and where rangers are arrested for rhino poaching. Seen in Parliament as the benchmark of good practices as to how the quality of rhino cases should be handled, the court has boasted a 99.8% conviction rate and up to recently had a 100% success rate in opposed bail applications.
Since its inception, the court has finalised approximately 80 cases, with convictions ranging between 12 and 40 years. There are currently 72 cases still on the court roll, with new cases being added almost weekly.
Concerted efforts to close the court, lurking since mid-2017, have now finally succeeded, with the court in Skukuza said to be closing at the beginning of October this year. Cases will be moved to Mhala Magistrate Court in Acornhoek.
Some identified consequences of the decision to move the court to Mhala are as follows:
- Rangers testifying in court will need to travel vast distances to Mhala, taking them further away from their bases. This means that they are far away if needed in the veld, making it very difficult for them to get back quickly especially when there are poaching groups active in the park. Poachers take full advantage of court days, gaining specific information on which rangers are due in court and planning their poaching trips around this. Fewer rangers in the park with long travel times to return is a death sentence for rhinos.
- Due to the lengthy sentences handed down in these cases, the legal defense practices all sorts of delay tactics for their suspected poacher clients. Rangers travelling to Mhala will spend a full unproductive workday sitting in court with the possibility of multiple trips given the length of these trials. Lost work hours and escalated travel costs add to already strained State resources. With the court in Skukuza as it has been rangers can go about their usual workday, be close to court, and also be close to their areas of operation if needed in an emergency.
- Closing the Regional Court makes it extremely difficult for the Stock Theft Unit of SAPS to attend since the District Court has already, to a large extent, been moved to Bushbuckridge. Now the members have to attend court at Bushbuckridge as well as Mhala, both far from their office.
- Transporting prisoners from Nelspruit prison to Mhala adds extra travelling for Skukuza SAPS.
- The road to Mhala is under construction making it difficult to get to court on time.
- There are very often riots in the Dwarsloop vicinity on route to Mhala. Depending on the reason for each riot, risk varies from time delays to damage to property, grievous bodily harm and loss of human life. This poses great risk to witnesses, expert witnesses and prosecutors.
- As a result of carrying out their work duties, upholding the law and protecting our county’s national heritage, rangers who need to testify in court will now need to travel through these often hostile and high-risk environments. A number of rangers have been intimidated, received threats against their lives, or the lives of their family members, with some communities openly siding with the poachers. This in turn has a detrimental effect on ranger wellness and morale. Skukuza Court, located well within the Kruger National Park, has provided a much safer environment for rangers to testify.
- Rangers are not allowed to carry their state weapons outside of the reserve, which renders them unarmed in a potentially dangerous environment.
- International media groups who visit the court whilst in the Kruger National Park create ongoing global awareness for the plight of the rhino.
Rhino poaching is a National Priority Crime in South Africa. The illicit rhino horn trade is worth billions of dollars in profit to local and international organised criminal syndicates, of which the poachers entering the Kruger National Park are the first link in the supply chain.
The establishment of Skukuza Regional Court was one of several measures taken in terms of Government’s Integrated Strategic Management approach to combat rhino poaching.
Skukuza Regional Court has stood as a symbol for justice against those plundering these charismatic species in our flagship National Park, choosing to lay waste to our national heritage for their own personal gain and to the detriment of future generations.
The success of this court is a direct threat to locally based influential and powerful syndicates. The closure of this court will not only be a victory for these syndicates but will have a detrimental effect on the Kruger National Park’s rangers, its rhino population and the reputation of South Africa in the eyes of the world.
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