Wildlife crime: Fighting to preserve South Africa's natural heritage

Posted on January 11, 2016

Wildlife crime is one of the most lucrative crimes in the world today. In fact, it falls in the same bracket as the high-level crimes of human and drug trafficking. Wildlife crime is no longer just about a country losing its iconic species; it is a remorseless war involving people of all cultures and classes across the world.

Such forms of crime include the illegal trade of wildlife flora and fauna and their products. While the world’s media focusses on rhino poaching in South Africa, the issue of wildlife crime has many facets and affects many species. There is extreme pressure on Africa’s lions, pangolins, elephants, rare birds, as well as many of the other less iconic species.

Wildlife crime generates millions. The magnificent sable antelope for example, is valued at over R20 million. Unfortunately, many South Africans, both in the public and in the private sector, are unable to resist getting their hands on such a large sum of money. Animals can be obtained and sold with relative ease, which strips society of any morality and breeds corruption. As a result, getting wildlife criminals convicted and sentenced is a challenging exercise in South Africa today and involves a very particular process, one which often proves to be flawed.

Many people who encounter the scene of a wildlife crime while working in the field have not been adequately trained to deal with the forensic process. This often does damage to the investigation, preventing the criminals from being sentenced. Poachers and illegal wildlife traffickers often walk free because of flawed evidence.

With this in mind and wanting to make a positive contribution to the dire situation that is wildlife crime, the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria (UP) presented a symposium on ‘African wildlife in a changing environment: Disease diagnostics and forensics’, followed by a course in wildlife forensic investigation, late last year. The main objective of the symposium was to inform people from a wide variety of sectors of what wildlife crime entails and of all the issues involved in bringing wildlife criminals to justice.

Prof Nick Kriek, co-ordinator of the symposium and veteran wildlife pathologist, says that cases are often lost in court because the process to prove guilt is flawed. What typically happens is that the farmer or ranger in the field calls on the local vet to attend to the scene of the dead animal, expecting an immediate diagnosis. Assumptions hold no weight in court and Kriek says an immediate diagnosis is usually not possible, and that it is usually a very lengthy process to make a sound diagnosis.

The symposium aimed to speak to all role players in the forensic investigation process, ranging from police officers, crime scene investigators and veterinarians to diagnostic laboratory technicians. ‘The symposium did not focus on a single discipline because it is  important to ensure that all role-players understand the process and know what is expected of them,’ explains Prof Kriek.

As expected, there was great interest from wildlife veterinarians, who play a secondary, but critical role in the forensic investigation of wildlife crimes. If something goes wrong during the vet’s forensic pathology process, the entire investigation will be jeopardised. 

‘Certain cases are exceedingly challenging and it is very difficult to reach a final diagnosis, which creates issues when dealing with litigation,’ explains Prof Kriek. The typical process for the vet includes an autopsy. The challenge in this is that every species is different in terms of how it is affected by, for example, chemical poaching or poisoning. Vets need to have a broad knowledge of wildlife to be able to handle the diversities of wildlife crimes. They also need to know what specimens to collect in order to affirm their suspected diagnoses.

The wildlife forensic investigation course that followed the symposium was divided into two groups, namely a veterinarian group and a non-veterinarian group. Vets are certified to make diagnoses, based on their pathological findings and so the course spoke to them specifically about their role in the broader investigation and the importance of following the steps required for their findings to hold weight in court. The lay group also received training by experts from the Faculty, enabling them to thoroughly and effectively assist vets in the collection of specimens. Prof Kriek notes that this group is not trained to make a diagnosis (which is strictly the task of the veterinarian), but to understand the process as a whole. The training highlighted the challenges that can arise and helped them to better understand the importance of their role and the necessity to be meticulous throughout the process. Renowned international experts also took part and presented at this week-long event.

Africa loses no fewer than 40 000 elephants per year. Countries across the world are protecting their last few remaining rhino. Lions are more commonly found in factory farming set-ups than in the wild. Wildlife criminals need to be targeted and held accountable for their actions. Symposiums and courses such as this one presented at UP play a vital role in the desperate attempt to save our natural heritage.


- Author Louise de Bruin

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