- Rangers in South African game reserves have been involved in providing information to rhino poachers.
- This is one form of corruption that the Wildlife Justice Commission says fuels wildlife crime.
- However, SANParks says it is implementing measures to reduce corruption, including a polygraph test system.
“Corruption is the air that wildlife crime breathes.”
This is according to a report by the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) which stated that corruption is often at the heart of wildlife crimes such as rhino poaching – and one of the role players at risk for corruption are the rangers who protect the endangered species in our game reserves.
The WJC said in the report that it had “collected intelligence on the leader of the rhino poaching network which indicates he works as rangers in the Kruger National Park”.
Those rangers “send him information on where rhinos roam, and he then arranges for his poaching teams to deploy to those locations,” the report said.
The WJC report added that there have been various arrests of park rangers working with poaching nets.
at recent days a report By Julian Radimir, Organized Crime Monitor Director for Eastern and Southern Africa at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime It is estimated that in just one section of the Kruger National Park, 14 of the 20 rangers have been linked to poaching nets. . Estimates cited by the WJC claim that up to 70% of rangers could be involved in corruption.
Rademeyer added that investigations by a private audit firm and the Hawks had uncovered evidence of union payments to at least 50 employees “from all walks of life” in one section of the park.
In the context of all transnational organized crime, he said, corruption is “the grease that keeps the wheels turning”.
“Corruption exists at almost every level of society and is a driver of criminal activity. In terms of wildlife crime, we have seen corruption among licensed agents, rangers, police officers and customs officials. This is what enables the influx of rhino horns from the south,” Rademeyer said.
But Rademir said such corruption is not unique to South Africa, and can be seen in all countries and across the supply chain of illicit goods.
“Overall, we really need to look at strengthening our anti-corruption mechanisms in South Africa. Corruption goes beyond rangers of forests and national parks and can include port and airport officials, who allow illegal material to pass through customs, to corrupt police officers,” he said.
Rademeyer said it is necessary to look at the factors that lead to corruption.
Among the vigilantes, this may be financial stress and the lure of flashy cars and clothes offered by criminals. It may also be that a guard or their loved ones have been threatened.
In some cases, Rademeyer said, that could include guards being compromised over time.
“It can be subtle. There are cases where someone asks a ranger to shoot them. It may escalate slowly, and by the time it involves rhino poaching, the ranger is so compromised that they have to keep up,” he said. .
Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment spokesperson Peter Ambelengwa (KOR) said there have been a number of officials over the past few years who have been arrested, expelled or sentenced in court for their involvement in wildlife crime in the Kruger National Park.
South Africa is clearly moving towards a more integrated approach with a focus on tackling corruption and money laundering linked to wildlife crime. The WJC report covers the April 2022 case of two Kruger National Park field rangers who were arrested in connection with providing tactical information that led to rhino poaching and charged with fraud, money laundering and corruption. Relatives of these individuals have also been arrested on money laundering charges. These interventions led to a sharp decrease in poaching incidents in specific areas of the Kruger Park. This approach is being taken in relation to other matters, and a number of officials who have been linked to corruption activities are being investigated.
Dr Emil Smidt, who has done research on the working conditions of rangers in the Kruger National Park, said reports like Rademeyer’s indicate that there is “a complete breakdown in trust and staff cohesion”.
He added that seeing corruption only from the perspective of crime obscures the underlying reasons that might push employees to participate in corruption activities.
In its 100-year history, he explained, the Kruger National Park relied on black workers who received below-subsistence wages and were subjected to exploitative working conditions.
In many ways, the historical working conditions on some game reserves mimic oppressive workplaces, such as those in mines or sugarcane plantations.
“The benchmarking exercises have shown that the pay structure for rangers is still lower than the wildlife economy around the park. That’s in 2023, but that’s a historical problem,” he said.
Smidt believes that the financial pressures many vigilantes face today have historical echoes as black vigilantes earned a fraction of what black workers earned in the mines, a workplace that was widely considered the most exploitative in the capitalist world.
In the current “war on poaching,” Smidt said, game reserves have played a direct role in creating a “financial vulnerability,” which black rangers counter by offering significant additional income through overtime.
In some cases, overtime accounts for up to half of a guard’s monthly income.
“Many rangers become financially indebted. Once in debt, park managers can take advantage of this subtlety to ensure rangers continue to use aggressive tactics in some of their encounters with poachers,” Smidt said.
“When guards refuse to use force irregularly or even illegally, they will no longer be required to engage in overtime, thereby losing the opportunity to earn significant forms of supplemental income, and thus run the financial risk of (in cases where they are) already heavily indebted.” .
Today, he said, as these extra income earning opportunities are becoming scarce due to low poaching pressures, vigilantes may resort to corruption to continue servicing their debts.
While game reserves are victims of rhino poaching, Smidt said, they are also complicit in the systems that make corruption flourish.
“When rangers get involved in illegal actions, it starts to insult their moral compass. To become an informant or to get involved in poaching is nothing compared to being asked to kill poachers,” Smidt said.
Rademeyer added that several interventions are being implemented by SANParks to rebuild trust with the guards, including a review of pay scales.
SANParks spokesperson Isaac Vahla said there is an “environment conducive to corruption on many levels leading to wildlife trafficking”.
“As an organization, we have always emphasized that it is not about preserving the environment but rather a complex crime that requires the whole world to tackle the problem,” he said.
“We have programs aimed at helping colleagues who may be subject to intimidation and coercion. We have the Rangers Wellness program which involves being money savvy and not using sharks that might target them. We also have a loan scheme that they can access in case they need financial help. The only major issue is That our colleagues live in neighborhoods where there are all kinds of criminal activities that expose them to unions.”
He said the SANParks Board of Directors has approved an “Integrity Management Program” and is currently negotiating its “implementation to avoid infiltration of the Corps of Rangers.”
In November, the SANParks board of directors approved a polygraph test policy for game wardens, which would give wardens an opportunity to “demonstrate that they are trustworthy” and “committed to protecting rhinos”.
SANParks spokesperson Ri Thakuli told News24 that he was working on developing a Standard Operating Procedure for implementing an approved polygraph test policy, which was developed after extensive consultations with labor law and organized labor experts.
He said polygraph testing would eventually become mandatory in certain job categories based on risk assessment.
Thakholi added that polygraph testing can play an important role in preventing employee involvement in crimes, such as rhino poaching. This conclusion was drawn from a pilot study among rangers in the Kruger National Park a few years ago.
He said the test would likely be used “as part of a toolkit” to prevent employee involvement in crime.
Smidt believes that Lie Detector Guardians perpetuates historical and systemic work dynamics by reinforcing the message that game reserve management does not trust them.
He added that the use of the lie detector test would likely lead to “more resentment from employees who have been living under suspicion for too long”.
“Over the years, management has always tried to measure the loyalty of field marshals,” said Smidt. “The polygraph test reframes the idea of loyalty and who a ‘good ranger’ is.”
He also raised concerns about the limitations of the polygraph test, explaining that results are not scientifically verifiable and often result in false negatives and false positives.
Rademeyer added that a comprehensive polygraph would likely hinder trust-building efforts with rangers, but could be a tool in investigations into rhino poaching. It also raised concerns about the accuracy of the polygraph test.
Bahla said progress has been made to improve wages over the past 10 years.
“But money is a finite product and has to be made in line with the affordability of the organisation’s budget,” he said.
Not only forest rangers are at risk of corruption, but unions target government officials in theft of stocks and embezzlement and customs officials to facilitate the safe passage of shipments, the WJC report said.
Olivia Swak, Executive Director of the WJC, said: “Since the creation of the Commission on Wildlife Justice in 2015, one of the constants we have noted in our intelligence-led investigations into wildlife trafficking around the world has been the role of corruption in enabling this type of organized crime.” “. Goldman.
“Corruption is the air that wildlife crime breathes; it is one of the main factors enabling widespread and widespread wildlife trafficking and one of the greatest barriers to effective law enforcement. It affects the work of park rangers, permitting authorities, customs officials and even You get to the courtrooms where justice must be served.”