The two were caught when they tried to sell an injured, malnourished pangolin to undercover agents.
In what could be the harshest sentence ever in a pangolin poaching case, the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court has slapped Orateng Mekwe with 10 years behind bars without the option of a fine.
He and co-accused, Jealous Rungano, a Zimbabwean national sentenced to three years in prison, were this week found guilty and sentenced of contravening the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act.
The two also found guilty of carrying out a restricted activity pertaining to the illegal trade of pangolins.
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Professor Rey Jansen, of the Faculty of Science at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, said: “It is a ground-breaking sentence. This sets a South African precedent as well as an African continental precedent and we believe it to be a global precedent.”
The pangolin is estimated to have lived on the planet for nearly 80 million years. Photo: SpiritHoods
The founder and chairperson of the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) said the conviction was the pleasing culmination of a sting operation during which four suspects were arrested and a malnourished pangolin seized.
In September 2019, the APWG, Cullinan stock theft and endangered species unit, K9 units from Benoni and Silverton and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s Green Scorpions set a trap for the suspects in Pretoria.
“During the sting operation, a pangolin was offered for sale to an undercover agent. Four suspects were subsequently arrested and the vehicle they used to transport the pangolin was seized,” Jansen said.
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He said the female pangolin died of malnourishment, dehydration and various physical injuries a few days later at the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital.
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Jansen said the illegal trade in pangolins, which are unique as they are the only mammals whose bodies are covered in scales rather than fur, makes them the world’s most trafficked mammal.
Jansen said pangolins have no defence mechanisms, are critically endangered and close to extinction in the near future.
Though large predators, starvation, fires and disease pose a threat to wild pangolins, the biggest enemy of the harmless ant eaters is mankind.
According to APWG, domestic trade poses the largest threat to African pangolins, with all four African pangolin species widely used for muti and the burgeoning human population has threatened their natural habitat.
The APWG estimates that between 440 and 1,190 pangolins are inadvertently killed by electrified fences in southern Africa every year. That is one pangolin electrocuted per 10-30 km of electrified fence a year.
Pangolins are also run over and killed while crossing roads, with an estimated 300 pangolins killed on SA roads each year.
Nicci Wright of the African Pangolin Working Group. Picture: Nicci Wright
Until recently, according to APWG, the international pangolin trade had focused predominantly on the Asian pangolin species but the recent decline in numbers and challenges facing law enforcement in Africa, coupled with increased trade agreements between Africa and Asia, has resulted in the African pangolin species increasingly targeted to supply the insatiable Asian demand.
Most of these animals and their derivatives are destined for China and Vietnam, although significant seizures have also been made in various European countries.
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Magistrate Henlie Luus granted the the pair’s application for leave to appeal.