South Africa academy teaches forensics to help catch wildlife criminals

Cape Town, South Africa, Apr 13 (EFE).- A pioneering center in South Africa has joined efforts to stamp out wildlife crime by applying forensic knowledge and investigative techniques to help rangers and officials solve cases and bring poachers to justice.

Because these kinds of crimes rarely, if ever, have witnesses, forensic investigation techniques can be crucial in holding perpetrators accountable, Andros Vos, CEO of the Wildlife Forensics Academy, tells EPA-EFE.

“In a human crime scene, you have witness statements, but in wildlife crimes you never have (them),” Vos says.

Another problem is that the first responders to wildlife crimes – namely park rangers, police officers and veterinarians – are not trained in protecting a crime scene in the wild for later forensic analysis.

“There are multiple forensic traces, but veterinarians, rangers, police officers, they just destroy the traces. That means that you can’t start an investigation,” Vos explains.

Only about 5% of poaching cases in Africa that are brought to court end in perpetrators being sentenced. “That means that you can kill an animal and get away with it,” he says.

Rhinos and elephants are among the most at risk animals from illegal poaching, as well as the pangolin, “which is almost extinct,” Vos says.

According to the Environmental Assurance consultancy, the illegal poaching of pangolin has reached “epidemic proportions” in South Africa and in the last 10 years over a million of the mammals are estimated to have been poached.

In 2021 there were 189 arrests in connection with rhino poaching activities, compared to 156 in 2020, according to data from South Africa’s forestry, fisheries and environment ministry.

According to the department, of the 38 verdicts handed down by the courts in 2021, 37 cases resulted in the conviction of 61 accused rhino poachers or traffickers.

Vos also highlights the “terrible” poaching of marine life such as crayfish and abalone, which are often overlooked because these crimes are less “visible”.

The academy works with universities abroad to train international students at the center, which is located on a wildlife reserve near Cape Town.

“The students come for leadership training (which) is necessary because these guys are the leaders of the future” who will be making strategic decisions related to wildlife crime, biodiversity or sustainable energy, Vos says.

Through partnerships with international universities, the Wildlife Forensic Academy and its foundation can provide scholarships to local rangers who otherwise could not afford the courses.

“In that way we can mobilize forensic knowledge,” Vos explains, pointing out that in the first years of the academy’s existence, they have established partnerships with 15 Dutch universities.

While raising awareness and promoting those kinds of training programs are essential, Vos believes that protecting Africa’s precious wildlife needs support from police and the justice system rather than relying only on conservation programs like the Wildlife Forensic Academy.

“We are talking about the fundamentals of our society (…) so we have to strengthen the criminal justice chain and put things in order,” Vos says. EPA-EFE


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