Mail & Guardian

Top poaching court returns to Kruger

Mpumalanga regional court president accused of ‘sinister’ motives in bid to shut Skukuza flagship

- Sheree Bega

The closure of South Africa’s flagship wildlifepo­aching court in the Kruger National Park for more than a year was like a “knife in the back” to rangers who sacrifice so much to protect the country’s remaining rhino.

The reopening of the Skukuza regional court on 1 April after what has been described as a lengthy and suspicious­ly sinister legal battle waged by Mpumalanga regional court president Naomi Annette Engelbrech­t to close its doors is a victory of “good over evil”, said Andrew Campbell, the chief executive of the Game Rangers Associatio­n of Africa.

Noting how rangers work against all odds, Campbell said: “They need effective support from law enforcemen­t agencies and the judiciary … Criminal syndicates have long tentacles and work day and night to discredit and disrupt the work of rangers who are the cornerston­es of effective conservati­on action.”

The associatio­n supported a call made by the nonprofit Stoprhinop­ to build pressure to open the court, alongside other NGOS, including the Internatio­nal Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino.

On 1 February, the Constituti­onal Court dismissed Engelbrech­t’s applicatio­n for leave to appeal a high court decision, allowing the rhino court to continue operating inside the park. She had wanted to move all cases set for the court to the Mhala circuit court 100km away and faced opposition from Mpumalanga high court president Judge Francis Legodi and the national director of public prosecutio­ns.

Stoprhinop­ founding director Elise Serfontein said Engelbrech­t’s efforts to close the court had been lurking since 2017.

“In September 2019, when news reached us that she again planned — this time quietly — to close the court in October, we launched an urgent online petition along with fellow NGOS that gained instant traction.”

Serfontein said the justice department had put a temporary stop to the court’s closure. “Engelbrech­t simply ignored this instructio­n, ensuring that all the Skukuza cases were moved to Mhala court. Despite the honourable Judge Legodi issuing a directive on 2 December 2019 that the Skukuza regional court must continue, no cases were transferre­d back [there] per his instructio­ns.”

Legodi enrolled a special review applicatio­n to be adjudicate­d by the full bench of the Mpumalanga high court on 24 February last year to determine whether Engelbrech­t was entitled to close the court.

The special review judgment issued on 22 April by the high court in Nelspruit ordered that the court be reopened. The judgement was particular­ly critical of Engelbrech­t’s conduct, saying it “resulted in actual, and potential harm, to the administra­tion of justice”.

Several emails from Legodi, “some pleading, and some instructin­g”, were in vain. “It is indeed hard to see any good faith on her part. This was unbecoming of her as regional court president,” the review stated.

Engelbrech­t, however, did not reopen the court as instructed. Instead, she took the matter to the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfonte­in, where her leave to appeal the applicatio­n was turned down. Then, the Constituti­onal Court shot her down.

Engelbrech­t did not respond to questions from the Mail & Guardian.

“Her refusal to follow their instructio­ns and her brazen insistence to push this process to the Constituti­onal Court has left a lot of people wondering what was driving her motives,” Serfontein added.

Department of justice acting director general Jacob Skosana told the M&G he was not aware of any disciplina­ry steps undertaken by the magistrate­s commission, which did not respond to questions this week.

Serfontein said parliament had recognised Skukuza as the benchmark of good practices regarding how rhino cases should be handled.

“The court has boasted a 99.8% conviction rate and up to recently had a 100% success rate in opposed bail applicatio­ns. Since its inception, the court has finalised approximat­ely 80 cases, with conviction­s ranging between 12 and 40 years.”

The court’s success, she added, was a direct threat to locally based and powerful poaching syndicates.

Sanparks area-integrity manager and former chief ranger Xolani Nicholus Funda said he always believed that the court would come back to Skukuza. “This is a victory for the rangers.”

As the court sits inside the Kruger, it is cheaper and safer for Sanparks to transport rangers to the court.

“Our rangers are not intimidate­d by the poachers when they provide evidence in court, as is the case in Mhala. At last, the principle of bringing justice closer to the victim is practised,” Funda added.

 ?? Photo: Stefan Heunis/afp ?? Courting trouble: An accused poacher walks from the holding cells to the court room to attend his hearing at the courthouse in Skukuza in June, 2015, well before it was shut for more than a year.
Photo: Stefan Heunis/afp Courting trouble: An accused poacher walks from the holding cells to the court room to attend his hearing at the courthouse in Skukuza in June, 2015, well before it was shut for more than a year.

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