A rhino lies sprawled on its side in the sand, its horns sawn off and trails of crimson blood flowing from bullet holes in its thick grey hide. The scene is a familiar one in South Africa, where more than 8,000 have been killed by poachers for their horns over the past decade.
This time, however, the crime scene is fake. The rhino is stuffed, the blood a mix of red paint and resin.
This is South Africa’s Wildlife Forensic Academy, a state-of-the-art training centre launched in May that hopes to bolster the global fight against wildlife crime by equipping environmental law enforcers with the skills they need to collect evidence and secure convictions in court.
In 2021, poachers killed 451 rhinos in South Africa, according to government statistics. Yet only 38 cases made it to court, either because no suspect was identified, or due to a lack of usable evidence.
“Wildlife crimes tend to take place in remote areas, so there are no witness statements,” says Andro Vos, a former programme director at the Netherlands Forensic Institute and co-founder and CEO of the Wildlife Forensic Academy. “So the forensic traces are often all you have to start a case.”
The academy, which is located on a wildlife reserve an hour’s drive north of Cape Town, hopes to educate and inspire its students using a series of realistic wildlife crime scenarios. Besides the stuffed rhino, there is a giraffe, a lion, a plant-poaching setup, a poacher’s house and truck and an inflatable boat of the type used by abalone poachers.
“People need to experience what it’s like,” says Vos, who started the academy to address what he sees as a lack of effective forensic training among wildlife crime law enforcement officers. “How are you going to inspire people just sitting in a classroom with a whiteboard? That’s why we have all these realistic scenes. Attention to detail is what forensics is all about.”
Petro Van Der Westhuizen, a former forensics expert with the South African police and a trainer at the academy, says: “Some of the rangers we’ve been training had absolutely no idea about forensics or how to handle a crime scene. If you want to identify suspects you have to start at the crime scene.”
A group of visiting forensics students from universities in the UK and the Netherlands make their way methodically around the fake rhino crime scene. Wearing full hazmat suits and blue plastic gloves, they scour the undergrowth for traces left behind by poachers. Among the clues they find are a hunting knife, bullet casings, flecks of blood on a nearby shrub, cotton fibres snagged in a thorn tree and several sets of footprints.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” says Noa Van Handel, 22, a forensic science student from the Saxion University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. “We’ve had some really interesting lectures and the practical side has been great.”
The academy aims to train its students in every step of the process, from the discovery of a crime scene to the conviction of the poacher. Among its facilities is a laboratory for the chemical analysis of evidence and a courtroom where students can get a feel for what it is like to present evidence at a trial and to undergo cross-examination.
“The first thing the defence will attack is the chain of custody and the processing of the evidence,” says Phil Snijman, a former prosecutor and lecturer at the academy. “If you make a mistake by contaminating the crime scene or not processing evidence correctly, that can mean the end of your case.”
The academy’s courses range in length from one to four weeks and target local rangers and foreign students, with the fees paid by the students helping to subsidise the rangers’ courses. Vos and his partner and co-founder, Greg Simpson, say they see the academy as a pilot project, which they hope to replicate elsewhere.
“There’s no magic bullet to ending wildlife crime,” says Simpson. “But we believe we can have a real impact.”