In the private wildlife reserve of Buffelsfontein a grim sight awaits. A once majestic rhino lies slumped in the dirt, its horn removed, a bullet hole visible on its left temple. Blood spatters the surrounding bushes and bullet casings litter the ground. The scene is all too familiar. In 2021, 451 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa – the first rise in poaching numbers in six years – but the rhino in the centre of our bleak tableau is not one of them. It is a taxidermied specimen, the blood on its head a mixture of resin and red paint. “If you didn’t know better, you’d think the scene was real,” says photographer Tommy Trenchard. “The attention to detail is incredible.”
This faux killing ground is part of a course at the Wildlife Forensic Academy, a recently opened facility opening a new front in the war on wildlife crime. The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be the world’s fourth largest internationally organised criminal enterprise, with annual revenues of up to $23 billion. While the conviction rates of those cases that do make it to court are very high – 100 percent of rhino poaching cases that came to court in South Africa in 2021 ended in a guilty verdict – Trenchard says this only tells half the story. “What those stats don’t show you is that the vast majority of cases don’t actually make it that far,” he says. “That’s because often there is just no very solid evidence that would stand up in court.”
The academy aims to help solve that problem. Its mission is to equip rangers, law enforcers and those working in reserves like Buffelsfontein with the skills they need to collect evidence and secure convictions. “Most wildlife crimes are committed in the wilderness without any witnesses,” says Trenchard. “There’s not much CCTV coverage in the bush. That leaves you reliant on the kind of forensic clues you can glean from the scene of the crime, but the first people to arrive often have no experience of securing a location or collecting evidence. If these things aren’t done correctly, the chances of holding anyone responsible drop dramatically.”
Trenchard documented one of the first cohorts of students to enter the academy. “They train a really interesting mix of people there,” he says. “There are students from universities all over the world, most studying forensics; there are law enforcement officials who were never given this kind of specialised training, and there are local rangers, who are often the first responders in these types of cases.”
The academy’s courses are as practical as possible. “One of the founders told me that you can’t really inspire people in a classroom,” says Trenchard. The hands-on experience includes students donning hazmat suits and wielding clipboards as they set about their work. “With the case of the rhino they were sent in to collect and catalogue evidence from this supposed crime scene, which included measuring the distance between the rhino and the bullet casings and analysing blood samples they found on a screwdriver in the sand. Some of the forensic traces were minute – little strips of fabric caught on thorns, tiny specks of blood on leaves.”
The rhino scenario was just one of the fake crime scenes set up across the facility. Elsewhere a garrotted giraffe, a prone lion, and homes and vehicles belonging to imaginary poachers awaited the students’ keen eyes.
The academy was established by Dutchman Andro Vos, who has been working in criminal justice for over 30 years, including stints as a programme director at the Netherlands Forensic Institute and as a policy advisor at the Dutch Ministry of Justice. “He’s a very committed character,” says Trenchard. “He was travelling in South Africa giving a talk on forensics when a student asked him why his techniques weren’t applied to wildlife crime the way that they were to other types of crime.” Vos thought it was such a good question that he decided to do something about it, relocating to South Africa and raising the money to open the Wildlife Forensic Academy. “He saw that there was a gap and he was determined to fill it,” continues Trenchard.
The centre is privately funded, with the fees paid by international students helping to subsidise the tuition of local rangers, and Vos has staffed it with a highly experienced team including former prosecutors, judges and crime scene investigators. Among them is Petro van der Westhuizen, who served in the South African police service for 21 years, rising to the level of lieutenant colonel and commander of a forensics field unit before she left the force in 2013. “She seemed like a tough character,” says Trenchard. “Cape Town has one of the highest murder rates in the world and her job would have been to investigate those kinds of crimes. Now she consults on cases for private clients, as well as working part-time at the academy where she channels her expertise into wildlife crime. At one point she was trying to find a lecture slide and her desktop background popped up for a second. It was of a blood spatter design, which seemed to sum up nicely her passion for forensics.”
The Wildlife Forensic Academy’s course doesn’t stop with the practicalities of evidence gathering, or the macabre beauty of blood spatters – it takes its students through every stage of the criminal justice system. Among its facilities is a laboratory for the chemical analysis of evidence and a courtroom which hosts mock trials. “Part of Vos’s premise is that it’s not enough for rangers or students to collect evidence; they also need to know how to present it in a court of law and stand up to intense cross-examination,” says Trenchard. “They usually have an actual magistrate come in, but they couldn’t make it when I was there, so Vos played the part himself. It was quite an intense trial, the poor students were really put through their paces. It was a reminder that the processes must be completely watertight otherwise the cases will just be kicked out.”
The academy is developing all the time, with new scenes being added, and Trenchard soon grew accustomed to bumping into peculiar sights in unexpected places. “You never quite know what you’re going to find around the next corner,” he says. “At one point I walked into a shipping container to find it filled with an odd mix of carpentry equipment and stuffed animals. I was confronted with a gazelle wrapped in plastic, just his head and horns sticking out”. Despite the often surreal scenes, Trenchard’s overriding impression of the centre was the sense of excitement and enthusiasm shared by both the staff and the students. “There was a sense that they were all part of a groundbreaking experiment that could really have a major impact on wildlife crime,” says Trenchard. “Vos is hoping that this project will turn out to be a pilot and they’ll be able to expand into other countries like Botswana, then the rest of Africa, and, eventually, the world.”
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