Evidence goes up in smoke in Mozambique
The incinerated products are believed to have included ivory and rhino horns that were seized in a record bust in Matola in May. The seizure of 65 rhino horns was the largest since the current rhino-poaching crisis began in 2008 – although 12 of them were subsequently stolen from a police warehouse. At least seven suspects, four of them police officers, were arrested in connection with the theft.
And this is why concerns are being raised. While the destruction of ivory and rhino horn sends a signal that the government is committed to tackling wildlife crime, vital evidence might well have gone up in smoke.
“WWF is concerned about Mozambique’s sudden decision to destroy this sizeable haul of ivory and rhino horns because it is likely that critical evidence has been destroyed, particularly from the record seizure in Matola, which could have been used to prosecute criminals and break up wildlife trafficking networks,” said Elisabeth McLellan, WWF Head, Wildlife Crime Initiative.
It is unclear whether DNA samples following CITES protocols were taken from the remaining rhino horns before they were destroyed, although an independent audit of the burned materials is understood to have taken place.
CITES Decision 16.84 directs all Parties to submit rhino horn samples from specimens subject to criminal investigation to designated accredited forensic laboratories for DNA analysis, while CITES Decision 16.83 directs all Parties to do the same thing for any seizure of ivory of 500 kg or more.
Cases against those arrested in association with the seizure of the 65 horns and the subsequent theft of 12 of them are still awaiting completion, with the primary suspect in the original seizure reported to have absconded.
“The apparent destruction of evidence in ongoing cases raises obvious concerns over how the legal process will now be properly followed in Mozambique,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s rhino and elephant expert. “In fact, Mozambique’s recent mega-seizure of rhino horns and elephant ivory has basically unfolded as a textbook case of legal unprofessionalism.”
While the destruction of ivory and rhino horn will certainly prevent its “leakage” into illegal trade, robust ivory and rhino horn stock management systems would appear to provide a more viable long-term solution.
Furthermore, the impact of public wildlife product destruction events on end-user markets is unknown and could even have detrimental impacts by highlighting the scarcity of the commodities being destroyed, increasing the demand for such products and driving prices upwards.
“Public destruction of wildlife products seized from illegal trade may capture the media limelight but it is certainly not going to solve the global poaching crisis,” said Milliken. “Applauding the destruction of court evidence and foreclosing on any prospect of effectively prosecuting those arrested in this landmark seizure is simply unconscionable.”
Mozambique’s decision to destroy these stocks follows recent positive statements by the president about the urgent need to end wildlife crime. However, the authorities must now focus on other critical actions, including additional anti-poaching efforts, strengthening the judicial process, and enhancing local stewardship of natural resources. And addressing corruption.
“The root causes that permit wildlife trafficking to take place need to be addressed, including the corruption that undermines law enforcement efforts,” said Milliken. “Without the evidence how can there even be a day in court?”