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30 April 2017
EWT project executive for law and policy programmes Rynette Coetzee
EWT project executive for law and policy programmes Rynette Coetzee
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Nonprofit wildlife and ecosystem conservation organisation the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) reports that an increasing number and variety of fauna and flora are being stolen and sold or exported for trade on local or foreign illegal markets.

EWT project executive for law and policy programmes Rynette Coetzee says that smuggling of these animals and plants has been overshadowed by the poaching of rhino.

“South Africa is one of the world’s most biologically diverse countries,” she says, adding that the country is the fifth-richest country in Africa in terms of numbers of endemic mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian species.

Coetzee explains that 37 species of cycad can be found in South Africa, of which 26 are endemic. “Five of these endemic species of cycads have become extinct in their natural habitats in the last five years,” she states.

“Truth be told, if it is not a bleeding carcass with a horribly mutilated face lying on the ground, you will most probably hardly ever hear or read about it. The scary reality is that these species are disappearing under our noses, most of them smuggled as live cargo to Europe, the Middle East, the US and the Far East,” says Coetzee.

Northern Cape Nature Conservation environmental management inspector Leon Muller suggests that at least 1 000 snakes, lizards, tortoises and other reptiles disappear from South Africa on a monthly basis. These species disappear off the continent only to reappear in the huge pet trade markets of Europe and America, he says.

EWT Threatened Grassland Species Programme manager Dr Ian Little has been studying the Sungazer (Ouvolk) population and has determined that the two major threats are habitat destruction and the illegal harvesting for the pet trade market. “Sungazers do not breed in captivity so when one sees all the websites of collectors and traders claiming to have bred these cute little creatures in captivity, one realises that this is simply not true. The only possibility is that they illegally collected a gravid female that subsequently gave birth in captivity,” he says.

Coetzee says that, of the four species of pangolin found on the African continent, the Temminck’s ground pangolin is endemic to South Africa. “Not many people have been lucky enough to encounter this shy, reclusive species in the wild,” she says.

Pangolin species are targeted by poachers and smugglers for their scales. “Recent studies conducted by the African pangolin working group estimate that pangolin are being poached 3.035% faster yearly compared to rhinos on the African continent. “At the end of April last year, 2 064 pangolins had reportedly been poached. Most of the meat is being consumed by the bush meat industry and the scales are allegedly being exported to China,” she says.

Methods of Smuggling

Wildlife smugglers are some of the most innovative and determined people in the world, states Coetzee.

The poaching methods and places in which wildlife specimens have been found include personal hand luggage, where small tortoises are rolled up in socks; as well as in the linings of jackets or coats, where, for example, small monkeys have been hidden. Some smugglers even choose to conceal wildlife inside underwear worn by the smuggling mule.

For larger concealments, smugglers use vessels such as cargo containers marked as tools, pipes, furniture and books, while elephant ivory and skin have been found hidden in washing machines.

She explains that most of these items and smuggling methods have been discovered by chance, by customs and scanner officials looking for narcotics, explosives or firearms. “Currently, the smuggling of wildlife and wildlife products is not considered a priority crime,” says Coetzee.

However, investigations have been conducted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Interpol, the World Wildlife Fund and other similar groups. These investigations identified an escalation in organised wildlife crime activities, and it is estimated that a combination of organised transnational environmental crimes, such as illegal logging and deforestation, poaching and illegal trade of wildlife, illegal fisheries, illegal mining and trade in minerals, illegal dumping and trade in chemicals and hazardous and toxic waste, has a combined yearly estimated revenue of between $70-billion and $213-billion.

“It is therefore imperative that these kinds of criminal activities become recognised as priority crimes for their impact on our health and safety, our economy and our constitutional rights to have our biodiversity protected for future generations,” she says.


Coetzee explains that, in terms of the Constitution of South Africa, the country’s government is constituted as national, pro- vincial and local spheres of government that are distinctive, interdependent and interrelated and share the responsibility of taking care of the country’s environment.

“The Department of Environmental Affairs, together with nine provincial conservation departments and local municipal departments, shares the responsibility of environmental protection,” she says.

However, Coetzee points out that all these departments are currently constrained by an inadequate budget, and staff and equipment incapacity. “This also results in a severe lack of adequate record keeping and accurate statistics on the loss of species due to wildlife crimes.

The current war on rhino poachers and rhino horn smugglers is taking up the lion’s share of resources, leaving the field clear for other wildlife smugglers,” she notes.

“There is just not enough capacity to counter the increasing scourge of wildlife smugglers. This, in effect, is also the reason why so few of these cases are adequately inves- tigated or even reach a court of law. Couple this with the huge gap in the knowledge and awareness of these types of crimes within the ranks of the South African Police Service, State prosecutors and magistrates and it is little wonder that wildlife smugglers seem to demonstrate little fear for the might of the law,” concludes Coetzee.

Edited by: Shannon de Ryhove
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Polity & Multimedia
Online Publishers Association