Windhoek-Namibia’s ombudsman Advocate John Walters says it is up to the courts to exercise their discretion following the legislative proposal of hefty fines of up to N$25 million for rhino and elephant poachers.
His advice was in response to the tabling of the Nature Conservation Amendment Bill in parliament in which the Minister of Environment and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta, seeks to increase fines for rhino and elephant poachers from the current maximum of N$200 000 to N$25 million. The Bill is aimed at urgently curbing rhino and elephant poaching, which have drastically increased in Namibia.
Walters said: “The N$25 million is the maximum, but a court can also fine N$2.00. I do not know whether this will deter poachers. Experience has taught us that even heavy sentences do not deter people from committing crimes.”
Chairperson of HORN Namibia, an environmental group, Jaco Muller, welcomed the move by the minister, saying: “We are very happy and want to congratulate him.”
Muller expressed confidence that once the Bill is sanctioned the new fines will make a difference, as he believes they will deter people from poaching.
Administrative and human rights lawyer at the University of Namibia (Unam) John Nakuta explained that the punishment for rhino and elephant poachers should be seen as a preventative and retributive measure to deter would-be criminals, due to the escalating poaching of wildlife resources.
“For one, it is reflective of the nation’s disgust and desire to bring the scourge of poaching to an end,” said Nakuta.
He added that even though most of the time those involved in poaching are villagers, who might not be able to afford such fines, poaching is an organised crime and the main brains behind this reportedly make a lot of money.
It is thus not in the interest of society to have low fines and lenient sentences handed down to convicted poachers, stressed Nakuta.
He further noted that the number of years people are sentenced in murder cases cannot be compared to that of rhino and elephant poaching as murder is a common-law crime and Namibia as such does not have a prescribed minimum sentence for murder.
It is thus up to the presiding judicial officer to impose the most appropriate sentence in any given instance.
“As such, the minister and his team are probably justified by invoking necessity as a defence in any challenge in respect of the proposed high fines and stiff jail terms,” added Nakuta.
When he tabled that Bill in parliament on Tuesday, Shifeta noted that people found illegally with specially protected species will be fined N$10 million from the current N$20 000 and imprisonment of five to ten years.
Fines for the illegal hunting of all protected species will increase from the current maximum of N$4 000 to N$500 000 and imprisonment of four to five years, while for that of all other species they will increase from the current maximum of N$2 000 to N$500 000, and imprisonment of two to five years.
Shifeta stressed: “The proposed fines are based on comparisons with penalties in neighbouring countries.”
Shifeta further said the Bill seeks to increase general penalties from the current maximum of N$250 to
N$6 000 and imprisonment of three to six months for first time offenders.
Subsequent same offenders, he added, will be fined N$12 000 from the current maximum of N$500 and imprisonment of six to 12 months.
He noted that unprecedented levels of illegal hunting of elephant and rhino are being experienced across Africa, and Namibia is not an exception, with organized criminal syndicates involved in trafficking of rhino horns and elephant tusks using very complex networks leading to foreign markets.
If the current levels of rhino and elephant poaching, as well as the trafficking of their products, are not brought under control there will be severe negative impacts on the survival of the two species, he said.
“Furthermore, such illegal activities will have a serious impact on our tourism, and rural poverty will also be enhanced because a high number of our local communities derive income from wildlife through consumptive and non-consumptive [practices],” he added.
Namibia, he said, is home to about 2 700 rhino, the second largest population of rhino in the world. However in 2014 the country lost 61 rhino, 91 in 2015 and 63 in 2016, which have negatively impacted the rhino population in Etosha National Park.
Out of 22 000 elephant, Namibia lost 78 in 2014, 49 in 2015 and 101 in 2016, he said, adding that this is particularly concerning as most of the poaching has occurred in Bwabwata National Park and involved foreign nationals working together with Namibians.
Shifeta also revealed that a total of 260 cases related to killing of elephant and rhino, as well as illegal possession and export of rhino horns and elephant tusks, were reported in 2016.