South Africa shoots rhino poachers, but lets kingpins walk, new report finds

"South Africa may seize defeat from the jaws of victory by legalizing trade and failing to prosecute the known kingpins," said Knights. (Photo / WildA

(SOUTH AFRICA / WILDAID) Rhino poaching middlemen and kingpins continue to operate with impunity in South Africa, according to a new WildAid report, which reveals how the country has failed to prosecute or sufficiently punish those arrested for high level involvement in rhino crimes.

"For years we have seen one South African elite after another evade justice, despite orchestrating the killing of rhinos and the trafficking of their horns," said Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid. "The corruption, incompetence, and leniency in the system must not be allowed to continue. Organized crime is stopped by taking out the leaders, not just the foot soldiers."

WildAid's report cites repeated examples of case dismissals, postponements and paltry fines, most often associated with suspects coming from the professional hunting, game farming or veterinary industries. Low level poachers, by contrast, are often shot or jailed for lengthy terms.

The game industry was also behind a challenge to South Africa's moratorium on domestic rhino horn trade,which was overturned last month. Alarmingly, the country is now contemplating allowing horns to be exported legally. 

"As we saw tragically with ivory legalization, it provides cover, and actually increases demand rather than satiating it," Knights said. "Legal rhino horn trade can provide a laundering mechanism, fuel increased rhino poaching, and undermine demand reduction efforts in consuming countries that are starting to make a real impact."

Substantial progress has been made recently to reduce consumer demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and China. Market research shows that wholesale prices have declined 50% or more in those countries. WildAid surveys also found large reductions in the percentage of people who still believe that rhino horn has medicinal effects.

"Rhino protection is improving in Kruger and demand is declining in Asia, but South Africa may seize defeat from the jaws of victory by legalizing trade and failing to prosecute the known kingpins," said Knights.