Allison Thompson is one of the most outspoken campaigners in the fight to save the rhino from extinction. A clue to her passion is the name she chose for the organisation she founded – Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching – OSCAP.
She recalls the incident that led her to set up OSCAP about six years ago. A young rhino was left bleeding and mutilated after poachers cut off its horns.
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“That animal was still alive when it’s having its face hacked off. You feel the anger – it’s just dreadful. Very little was being said or read about it both locally and internationally. Outraged was exactly how I felt at the time.”
There was an online appeal for practical help to save the rhino. The animal died after two days, but from that anger, OSCAP was set up.
Most of Thompson’s fury now is directed at the corruption which she says perpetuates the poaching.
“Our corruption is endemic in every sphere of the wildlife industry. We have pilots involved, we have vets involved, we’ve got rangers involved. We’ve had a really highly respected section ranger from Kruger National Park recently arrested.”
Thompson is referring to a case which caused genuine shock in conservation circles. In July 2016, a regional ranger with 15 years experience, Rodney Landela, was arrested in the Kruger National Park after rangers heard shots. They found a dead rhino and arrested two men in the immediate area. Rodney Landela has denied charges of poaching and is awaiting trial.
In other ongoing trials, vets and pilots, connected to privately owned game farms, are facing multiple charges of poaching and accused of being part of highly sophisticated, well-funded criminal networks.
Even when people are initially charged, cases often fail to reach court with no obvious explanation. People released on bail frequently disappear. Convicted poachers escape with small fines and return to the kill.
“The core of our problem is that the justice system lets us down all the time,” says Thompson. She wants much tougher sentences to act as a deterrent.
During our investigation, we heard about bribes paid to conservation officers who issue permits to private game reserves allowing them to keep rhinos and other endangered species, including those which aren't native to South Africa, such as tigers.
Another major issue has arisen when foreign nationals have been charged, mainly from China and Vietnam. The courts can’t find enough reliable translators. In some cases, resident Chinese and Vietnamese have refused the work saying they’ve been threatened by criminal gangs if they help the police. In other cases, translators have deliberately falsified evidence or passed details back to the criminal bosses running the networks.
One of the most common accusations is that police officers take backhanders to let suspects escape or that they are even more directly involved in the poaching. When horn is seized in police raids, it frequently goes missing from supposedly secure police storerooms. One local “middleman” Al Jazeera spoke to claims that he buys horns directly from corrupt police officers, who themselves have stolen it from poachers. Occasionally, police officers have been convicted, but it’s a rare event.
The corruption is evident in other areas too. During our investigation, we heard about bribes paid to conservation officers who issue permits to private game reserves allowing them to keep rhinos and other endangered species, including those which aren’t native to South Africa, such as tigers.
Money can also change hands when export licences are requested. Both Vietnam and China have imported rhinos from South Africa, ostensibly for private safari parks or rhino farms. Conservationists are generally opposed to the idea that any of Africa’s endangered species should end up in the very countries which regard horn, ivory, lion teeth or pangolin scales as a commodity.
Thompson sums it up when she says: “Organised crime can only flourish in a corrupt environment, and until we can fix our corruption here, we will never ever stop the poaching.”