Inside SA's Rhino poaching war

A morning in the spartan Skukuza Periodical Court

A gospel music tune blares from a cellphone, interrupting sentencing arguments for a Mozambican man caught trying to poach rhino in the Kruger National Park. “Advocate Sibiya!” Magistrate W Baloyi growls from her bench. She leans forward, scowling. The rotund lawyer fumbles in his suit jacket to switch his cellphone off. There are beads of sweat on his forehead.

“Apology your worship,” Sipho Sibiya mumbles.

It’s Wednesday morning in the Skukuza Periodical Court. Sibiya is late. He came in during the last case of the morning, sweating and breathing heavily, and sat down in the front row of the public gallery. In his lap he held a red diary with his name, cellphone number, and the words “Ignorance of the law is not an excuse” embossed on the front.

About two hours earlier, prosecutor Ansie Venter was unable to proceed with a case against two men because their lawyers, including Sibiya, were not there.

“The State has received an SMS from an unknown number just saying ‘I cannot make it to court’. I don’t know whether it’s coming from advocate Sibiya,” she told Baloyi.

Another lawyer, a Mr Sithole, had called Venter earlier to say he would be late. But Sibiya and a Mr Ngomane were not in court.

Baloyi stood the matter down.

Absent lawyers are but one of the frustrations of Venter’s job. Then there are the missing or incomplete charge sheets. The first accused of the day to have his case called was Carlos Mathebula. Venter had to ask for it to stand down because his charge sheet had not arrived.

It arrives later that morning, but there’s another problem.

“Now they have only faxed through half of the charge sheet. Jissie tog!” she exclaims after getting it during an adjournment, her face wrinkled in frustration.

The court sits every Wednesday in a bare-brick room next to the Skukuza police station, which is outside the rest camp. There is no wood panelling or the hard wooden benches one finds in courts in metropolitan areas. Two green chequered squares of fabric have been hung over the windows to filter out the harsh light. Three rows of chairs make up the public gallery.

The only concession to security are the three narrow windows with bulletproof glass and bars that face the adjoining room, from where the accused that are kept in custody enter. There are no metal detectors, there is no police officer guarding the door.

The dock is a wooden frame open on one side with a microphone attached to it. Next to it is a tatty, faded office chair.

In front of the magistrate’s bench, the prosecutor, one or two defence lawyers, the stenographer, and a police officer share a table.

At Venter’s prompting, the police officer gets up, goes into the next room and shouts the accused’s name. It echoes through the passages. There is the clanking of keys and slamming of steel doors. The ones in custody wait in a long brick passage with a gate at one end and a grille for a roof high overhead.

The accused are mainly young, in their late teens and early 20s, and all men. They enter silently. When they speak the translator has to lean in to hear them. They smell of sweat and dirt and look nervous, lost, and hungry. When there is more than one, they squat against the wall behind the dock or sit in the front row of the public gallery.

Vusi Ngono wears grey trousers, sandals and socks. He’s the most eye-catching poacher of the day in his red jacket with reflector strips and the logo of construction firm WBHO on it. It looks brand new.

Some of the accused wear brand name clothing such as Nike and Adidas tracksuit pants, takkies, or sandals. Those with shoes have had the laces removed.

Most of them are poor and uneducated, recruited by extremely organised bosses, Venter says.

WATCH: We take you through the legal process of prosecuting the accused poachers

On a busy day there can be between 24 and 27 cases, with between one and four people in each case, meaning about 50 or 60 accused.

“Ninety-nine percent of those are rhino-related. Some days 100 percent,” Venter says.

And on this particular Wednesday, it’s no different. Venter is pleased that no fresh rhino carcasses have been found over the past few days. And it’s a quiet day.

All the accused face what Venter calls the “standard charge sheet”: illegal possession of a firearm, illegal possession of ammunition, trespassing, and possession of a firearm with the intention to commit a crime. The latter carries a maximum jail sentence of 25 years.

The prescribed sentence for the poaching of one rhino is 10 years. Fifteen years for illegal possession of a firearm. Five years for trespassing.

Before 13:00 that day the court hears 11 cases. The cases against Carlos Mathebula, case number SK34 of 2015, and Sergio Ngobeni all have to be postponed as they’re still in hospital after being shot by rangers.

Ngono has his case withdrawn as his co-accused no longer want to testify against him. He walks out of court a free man.

The only case on the court roll that morning not directly related to poaching is Frank Muyeni’s. He is accused of stealing two-way radios, binoculars, night-vision equipment, and camouflage netting from his former employer, the Sabi Sands game reserve. He is out in bail of R1 500 and has to wait until after lunch for his case to be called.

The other six are all postponed, mainly because they still need to find lawyers or because the lawyers did not show up in court.

Lawrence Ndlovu, Isaac Ndlovu, and Amerigo Selimao are all Mozambicans illegally in South Africa. Their Legal Aid lawyer is Petunia Ngobeni. She intends to apply for bail.

“The State will place on record again that bail is opposed. The State is not going to grant them bail. They are all illegal in South Africa,” Venter says, shaking her head and smiling, like she knows she will get her way.

The matter is then postponed.

Prosecutor proud of her success rate

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Any poacher caught in the Kruger National Park will likely cross paths with Ansie Venter. Despite her pink painted toenails, pink cellphone cover and her friendly, motherly air, it’s clear the prosecutor doesn’t take nonsense from anyone.

She opposes bail in 99.9% of the cases she prosecutes, especially if the accused have trespassed into South Africa from Mozambique or Zimbabwe with no identity papers, which makes them an immense flight risk. South Africa has no extradition treaty with Mozambique, so if they get across the border, there’s no way to get them back.


Ansie Venter is a specialised prosecutor with the National Prosecuting Authority. (Dan Calderwood, News24)

Her success rate in opposing bail is 100%, she says proudly, and she gets jail sentences for virtually all her cases.

She is a specialised prosecutor with the National Prosecuting Authority, attached to the organised crime section. She has been working for 29 years, the past six or seven of them involving rhino poaching matters.

Every Wednesday, she makes the three-hour drive to Skukuza from her office in Middelburg. The interpreter, stenographer, and magistrate travel from White River.

“I think it’s still getting busier by the day. When I started we had the odd case. It was actually the exception to the rule if you have a rhino poaching case or even an illegal dealing or smuggling of rhino horn,” Venter says.

“Now when we get here, every week there are new arrests, new cases.

“It has become tremendously busy. It is actually taking over your whole life. Leaving home early. Getting home late. Sometimes we stay here for a few days. It’s a tremendously busy life. It gets to your heart as well as to your mind.

“It’s extremely difficult to arrest and prosecute these people. If they are not caught in the act it’s extremely difficult to arrest them and prove the cases.”

Most cases are postponed as the accused need to find lawyers. As there is so much money involved in poaching, the accused can sometimes afford the best lawyers, who then employ delaying tactics. Sometimes they fail to show up at court and then the case has to be postponed.

“The magistrate here, Mrs Baloyi, is giving us excellent sentences. She’s totally objective. She knows the work. She’s an experienced magistrate. And we do get direct imprisonment for virtually all of the cases.”

One trend Venter has noticed is that poaching is becoming more organised. The poachers are dropped off in the park, and picked up again.

They are caught with cellphones, food, and water and are able to survive in the bush for days. They appear to get training in the use of weapons and in removing horns, and are becoming more aggressive.

“We find more and more that the rangers come and report, and their affidavits indicate that they aimed at them, that they shot at them. Luckily, until now, we have only lost two people. One was killed by friendly fire some years ago and the other ranger passed away in 2012.”

She says once a horn is taken it either goes across the border into Mozambique, or it gets taken to Johannesburg, to places like China Mall or Bruma Lake. From there it gets smuggled to the Far East.

Guilty as charged, apologetic accused admits

Elliot Manzini is the oldest accused in court. The bearded 43-year-old looks gaunt and tense as he steps into the dock. Today his case will be the only one to be finalised. The father of six children earned between R6 000 and R7 000 in a good month selling vegetables in Mozambique. His wife is unemployed.

On May 29, he illegally entered South Africa and was caught near Crocodile Bridge with a hunting rifle, a cellphone, and a backpack. Another man who was with him got away.

Venter reads each charge he is accused of out loud and the translator repeats it to him. Baloyi asks him if he understands the charge and what his plea is. He mutters a reply to the translator, who tells the court in English.

Count 1. Trespassing. Guilty. Count 2. Illegal possession a .375 hunting rifle.

Manzini begins to mumble a long reply to the translator. For a moment it seems as though he’s changed his mind and the plea will fall through. The translator listens and tells the court:

“Your worship, my explanation in connection with the said firearm is that when we entered the park we were two in number. And we were about to walk out of the park. We managed to get out even though we did not get far, as the rangers were close by. We saw those rangers and ran to hide ourselves. Where we hide ourselves, the person whom I was with was in possession of such a firearm. When he saw those rangers approaching he ran away and I was found with the said firearm.”

(Dan Calderwood, News24)

Elliot Manzini pleads guilty to the 4 charges laid against him inside the Skukuza Periodical Court. (Dan Calderwood, News24)

Baloyi tells him the question was what his plea is and that his lawyer will do the talking for him. Another brief exchange follows between Manzini and the translator.

“Guilty as charged your worship,” the translator says.

Count 3. Possession of ammunition without having a licence for the firearm it is used for. Guilty.

Count 4: Possessing a .365 calibre hunting rifle with the intention to illegally hunt rhino. Guilty.

His lawyer, Bheki Mbonani, gets him to sign the plea and reads it into the record.

“I wish to apologise to the court and the community as a whole. I further wish to confirm I knew my actions were unlawful and take full responsibility for my actions,” Mbonani reads.

Baloyi finds him guilty. Mbonani gets up to argue in mitigation of sentencing. He speaks slowly, haltingly, and peppers his speech with “your worships”.

“I understand that such offences, your worship, are common around this area, but however, your worship, I request the court to stretch an extra hand of mercy on passing sentence, your worship.”

He says his client deserves a second chance, and asks it to impose a fine. Baloyi asks him what Manzini’s income is and for the ages of his children. He asks her for permission to approach his client and ask him. The first born is 22, the last one four.

“Your worship, I further ask your worship, he is 46 years of age,” he continues.

Baloyi stops him and looks at her papers.

“His age is 43,” she corrects him.

He concludes soon after, indicating that Manzini does not have the intention of ever applying for a firearm licence.

Then it’s Venter’s turn. In contrast to Mbonani, she is like a steamtrain. She speaks with confidence and conviction, with the weight of her 29 years of experience behind her.

“Rhino poaching currently is so rife in the whole of South Africa and especially in the Kruger National Park, that sometimes it feels to a prosecutor when you walk into court that rhino cases are on the court roll like shoplifting cases in a metropolitan city.”

She’s had to give a similar speech before, probably hundreds of times, but she still feels strongly about her work.

While the disclosure of statistics is not encouraged for “certain reasons”, she says, by the end of May more than 450 rhino had been poached in South Africa during 2015 so far. Of those, about 85% were in the Kruger Park.

Despite all the effort, the inconvenience to people’s lives, the money and hours thrown into efforts to stop poaching, indications are that by the end of the year the trend will still be on the increase.

She says she rejected Mbonani’s attempt to “deal bargain” on Manzini’s sentence, given that he pleaded guilty.

“But what deal bargaining can one do in a case like this?”

(Dan Calderwood, News24)

Manzini was caught near Crocodile Bridge with a hunting rifle, a cellphone, and a backpack. (Dan Calderwood, News24)

The State already met Manzini halfway by not also charging him with being in South Africa illegally. Venter dismisses Mbonani’s argument that his client’s guilty plea is worth a lesser sentence, saying he had no choice but to plead guilty.

“In some instances the circumstances under which accused are arrested are just of such a nature that there simply is no other option but to advise an accused to plead guilty.”

Manzini’s arrest was “yet another salute to Killer, the tracking dog of one of the rangers”, she says, lifting her hand to her forehead in a mock salute.

“Killer has sniffed out so many poachers in the park and he has done it yet again in this instance.”

She wants him sent to jail. Had he poached a rhino, he would be in a regional court, facing a sentence of 30 to 40 years.

“The State is not asking the court to impose 25 years, but the State is asking the court to impose such a sentence that will send out a message to Mozambique [she raises her voice] – the accused before court is another Mozambican – that the courts will not tolerate this.

“Your worship, somehow we have to believe and we want to believe that passing good sentences will help to get the message out there,” she says.

After a brief adjournment, Baloyi returns. In her brief summary, she notes that no amount of punishment seems to act as a deterrent to poachers.

She mentions Mpumalanga’s importance as a tourist destination, and that poaching affects not only South Africa, but also the international community.

“As the State also indicated, on a daily basis when the court is sitting here every Wednesday, the situation is the same. Like today, we have 12 cases on the roll. Only one is different, the rest are similar to the charges that you are facing as well.

“As the State also correctly indicated, it is safe to say 80 to 90% of the accused persons in these cases are citizens of Mozambique who illegally came into the country.

“It is unfortunate that despite the sentences, it can be the most maximum fine that the court will impose, or try to impose harsher prison terms, it does not stop the people from coming into the Kruger National Park.”

She gives Manzini six months in jail for trespassing; three years for illegal possession of a firearm; another three for possession of ammunition; and four years for possession of a firearm with the intention to hunt.

The sentences will run concurrently, meaning that in effect he gets seven-and-a-half years. That’s more than Oscar Pistorius got for shooting Reeva Steenkamp. And Manzini didn’t fire a single shot.

Speaking outside court, Venter says what made the case unusual was that Manzini pleaded guilty from the start, which Baloyi likely took into account when deciding on a sentence.

“Usually by the time they decide to plead guilty we are six months, eight months, down the line,” Venter says.

“It doesn’t happen that fast like this at all. If we went on trial it would have taken us five or six months to get to the trial stage, and then the trial in itself could last up to three or four or five days, depending on what they dispute.” This includes DNA, ballistics, forensic experts, photo albums, and getting photographers to testify, she adds.

They are desperate for money to survive

Bheki Mbonani, who works for a law firm based in Mbombela, gets emotionally attached to his clients. A sign of his inexperience perhaps. At 25, he’s less than half Venter’s age. He says he’s represented about five rhino poachers. After the sentencing, he steps out of the court, leans against a wall, sighs, and takes a drag from his cigarette.


Defence lawyer Bheki Mbonan talks through the holding cell bars to one of his clients who is set to appear before the magistrate. (Dan Calderwood, News24)

At one point during his sentencing arguments, Baloyi asked him to speak up. He told her he was getting emotional.

“I get emotional when I represent a client,” he explains.

“I become emotionally attached to the client because I understand his personal circumstances, where he comes from, especially people from Mozambique. They are very poor, they are desperate for money to survive, that’s why I became emotional.”

Since many of his clients are poor, he says he often waives his fee.

“I charge them a lot of money but eventually they can’t even pay, then out of the goodness of my heart I just proceed with the instructions. Some of them they can’t even pay, they only pay half of it, then I just come and deliver my services.”

What he can’t understand is all the fuss being made about poachers, when other crimes, he feels, get neglected.

“I strongly feel that it is unfair that a poor woman from the rural areas is being killed but it’s not being taken seriously. If one is charged with rhino poaching everyone must be up in arms. They are being denied bail. They keep them in custody. I don’t know why, because a certain group of people are more sensitive towards such offences of rhino poaching.”

Although he says Manzini got a fair sentence, he questions why a poor man like his client, who he says acted out of desperation and pleaded guilty, had to be punished.

“The law also provides for mercy. The court should stretch an extra hand for mercy. Especially when an accused person pleads guilty to the charge. It means he acknowledged his acts were wrong. And there’s room for rehabilitation. So why should you punish such a person?”

Responding to Venter’s arguments that poaching is highly organised and run by “bosses”, he smiles and says: “I’ve never met a boss. I don’t know what’s a boss.”