14 Nov 2019

Fauna / The growing threat of transnational livestock theft in South Africa

Organised criminal networks are capitalising on the lack of awareness surrounding stock theft.

There were 29 672 counts of stock theft in South Africa in the 2018-19 financial year. This is a 2.9% increase from the previous year, where 28 849 cases were registered, which in turn was a 7.2% increase from 2016-17. These South African Police Service annual crime statistics show that stock theft is on the rise.

Livestock theft costs the country billions of rand each year. It also affects the local agricultural economy and has a negative impact on food security.

Stock theft is not a new problem in South Africa. What is new is that it has transformed from petty theft by individuals to operations conducted by organised syndicates. Willie Clack, a penologist at the University of South Africa, told ENACT that ‘87% of livestock theft involves some form of organised crime while 13% is for survival’.

Livestock theft is a global phenomenon and, as well as being a national problem, it also has transnational dimensions. In South Africa, all indications point to a growing transnational organised criminal element to the issue.

As livestock theft has increased, so has the violence associated with it

Livestock theft across the borders of South Africa and Lesotho has been an ongoing problem for years. The South African and Lesotho police’s joint Operation Servamus in August resulted in the seizure of 117 stolen cattle, 107 stolen goats, four sheep and seven horses.

The modus operandi of livestock thieves depends on whether stock is stolen for survival or greed. If for survival, only a few animals will be stolen or slaughtered for their meat, with the thieves running off with what they can carry, leaving behind carcasses.

If the motivation is greed, then the operation is more carefully planned by criminal syndicates. It usually involves a group of three to five individuals in a network. Usually the syndicates have a scout who watches the movement of the livestock and alerts the criminals. At the opportune time, the individuals illegally access the property and steal the animals which are then loaded onto trucks and driven away.

Stock theft is an organised crime that affects national security

There have also been instances where farm workers and farmers were involved in stock theft by colluding with livestock theft syndicates. The farm workers involved usually provide information about the farm to the criminals. Farmers collude to steal livestock from other farms.

Regarding cross-border raids between South Africa and Lesotho, the stolen animals are hidden along the mountainous border. After some time they are moved across the border to Lesotho where the livestock is rebranded and sent back to South Africa. Once there, the stolen animals are laundered through stock auctions, says Clack. ‘This creates difficulty in actually proving that the livestock was stolen.’

Theft across the South Africa-Lesotho border also isn’t a one-way phenomenon. Livestock from Lesotho is stolen and taken into South Africa too, and then fed into the sale-of-stock system.

Porous and poorly secured borders contribute to the problem. Large parts of the border fence and fence poles are stolen, there is a lack of capacity to monitor the long stretch of the border and the mountainous terrain is difficult to police. Such challenges create opportunities and trafficking routes for criminal networks to smuggle livestock, drugs and at times firearms across the border.

Farming communities could help police by becoming more actively involved in stock theft investigations

As livestock theft has increased, so has the violence associated with it. ‘With livestock theft comes the problem of drug trafficking accompanied by increasing levels of violence,’ a senior law enforcement officer in Lesotho told ENACT on condition of anonymity.

In addition to stealing animals, armed criminals attack farm workers and farmers. Many of these cases are not reported to the police, primarily due to fear of reprisal by criminals who are known to target farmers and farm workers, steal equipment and vehicles, and set alight grazing or even whole farms.

The lack of trust in police processes due to their inability to follow up on cases that are reported due to lack of capacity and the low conviction rate of criminals results in a breakdown in the relationship between farmers and police.

To address stock theft in South Africa and across the border, the public must be made aware of the phenomenon through media and research. Clack says there is a ‘need to raise the profile of livestock theft’ among the public, as it is a problem that affects not only farmers and farm workers, but all South Africans, as it is an organised crime affecting national security.

Addressing the problems that impede effective policing is key to addressing transnational livestock theft. These include a shortage of policing vehicles, a lack of mechanisms to curb the costs incurred when impounding stock, and poor cooperation between law enforcement and famers. Despite the SAPS having a specialised Stock Theft Unit (at the national and provincial levels), a lack of capacity and resources are primary obstacles to successfully curbing the problem.

There were 29 672 counts of stock theft in South Africa for the 2018-19 financial year

Effective policing of the mountainous terrain exploited by criminals would also require resources such as drones, off-road vehicles, quadbikes and even a helicopter, says Clack. Currently most vehicles used are not suited to the difficult terrain that police must monitor. In one instance, the Stock Theft Unit transported stock via a trailer attached to a 4x4 – but the transport of livestock requires a truck.

Lack of communication, cooperation and trust is another problem. There is a need for more organisations like the National Stock Theft Prevention Forum to build and sustain the relationship between the farming community and the police.

Farming communities could help police by becoming more actively involved in investigations and the prevention of stock theft. This would require a deliberate, concerted and budgeted intervention. Alternative forms of protection and security are another option, but could be costly for farmers.

Better coordination and information sharing between the Lesotho and South African police and relevant state departments in disrupting organised criminal networks. Joint operations such as Operation Servamus exemplify the success of such endeavours.

Addressing livestock theft requires a concerted effort and collaboration between all key stakeholders including farmers, local communities, security agencies, civil society, government and law enforcement.

Richard Chelin, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS


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ENACT is funded by the European Union
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ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with
INTERPOL and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.