A death sentence for the rank and file of poaching syndicates in southern Africa is inhuman and unconstitutional.
In late November 2020, the Mail and Guardian reported that the Botswana Defence Force shot and killed four alleged poachers fishing along the Chobe river. Reports have since emerged stating that none of the fishermen were armed, and one of them may have been killed only after he was arrested.
The incident has brought to the fore the controversial “shoot to kill” policy in place to curb poaching, which reports by the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism said has seen 12 people killed in 2020 by the Botswana anti-poaching unit.
According to Medium, Botswana’s former president, Ian Khama, was a vocal supporter of the shoot to kill policy. Khama was the country’s commander of the national Defence Force before he entered government. This unwritten shoot to kill policy, which many have likened to extrajudicial killing, remains in place.
The shoot to kill policy is becoming increasingly common throughout Southern Africa, with Kenya implementing a similar policy in 2018. In a statement released in May 2018, Kenya’s tourism and wildlife minister announced their new “shoot to kill” policy for rhino poachers caught in the act. According to Business Day, the news prompted a variety of responses on social media platforms, with many South Africans applauding the move and calling for similar action in South Africa.
Kenya’s new policy is aimed at conserving flora and fauna. Najib Balala, the Minister for Tourism and Wildlife, says that once the laws are ratified, poachers would face the death penalty. This replaces the life sentence or 200 000 US dollar fine, which Balala says is not severe enough to deter poaching.
According to two academics from the University of Botswana, South Africa should follow suit and adopt capital punishment for rhino poachers if it seriously wants to decrease poaching.
But, introducing this kind of policy would be disingenuous and regressive in South Africa’s constitutional democracy. According to Times Live, the death penalty has been abolished in South Africa since 1994, and implementing a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy that ignores the constitution and the right to fair trial is uncomfortably similar to apartheid-era laws.
The movement on social media that encourages violence against poachers comes predominantly from a privileged point of view. Guest editor Annette Hübschleand and editor Andrew Faull of the SA Crime Quarterly journal argue that “Shoot-to-kill” policies affect only the lowest levels of huge crime networks without even beginning to infiltrate the higher echelons.
The poachers who would be the targets of this kind of policy are not criminal masterminds who are integral to the horn industry, they are the poor locals from surrounding villages or other countries who suddenly have the opportunity to make a lot of money from animals that threaten their livestock and live only in inaccessible fancy game reserves.
In 2016, ZAM reported that many of the poachers in the Kruger National Park are Mozambiquans. When they are caught in South Africa, they are usually treated with extreme violence, and are often found dead. In some cases, ordinary Mozambicans are mistaken for poachers. In addition to the lack of legality of shoot-to-kill policies as per the South African constitution, this also further substantiates why extrajudicial killings are never acceptable.
This should not undermine the prevalence of Rhino poaching in southern Africa. In 2018, 769 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone. The rhino horns are made into trinkets, which some believe have medicinal properties. However, according to News24, the ivory is actually made of keratin, the same substance that human fingernails are made from, and has no health value.
However, efforts to curb rhino poaching need to adopt an approach that targets lucrative crime circles and involves local communities in sustainable conservation. A shoot to kill policy is non-constitutional and is unlikely to place pressure on the highest levels of rhino poaching networks.
Shannon Lorimer studied journalism at Rhodes University in South Africa and is now completing her masters degree at Leiden University. She is currently interning at ZAM and researching the role of social media in the conflict in northern Nigeria.