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End o f the road fo r the ivory smugglers caught with their illegal hoard by South Africa’s Endangered Species Protection Unit poachers are the agents of the Endangered Species Protection Unit (ESPU), a special unit tasked to combat illegal trafficking in wildlife. Set up in 1989 by the South African Police Service (SAPS) as an outgrowth of the stock theft unit, the initial focus for ESPU was halting the poaching and smuggling of rhino horn and elephant ivory.

Officially, the ESPU was formed with the overall vision to ensure South Africa’s natural heritage is preserved. The ESPU’s mission is to curtail the international trade in endangered species.

The specialised functions of the ESPU include in vestigating and preventing any crim in al conduct such as illegal hunting, buying, selling and smuggling. ESPU also investigates African art and cultural and historical artifact theft.

Since 1989 ESPU has conducted over 1,000 investigations into wildlife crime, seizing smuggled ivory, rhino horn, fish, rare plants, and endangered birds worth tens of millions of dollars.

Sting operations Through friends in the South African m ilitary, I was able to spend some time with the ESPU. I first received an orientation at the ESPU headquarters in Pretoria, a private estate.

The ESPU conducts “sting operations” right in their own offices. The arrest is usually preceded by a phone call by an undercover agent on his way and the officers in the headquarters must frantically hide everything that might look like law enforcement

December 1998 New African 9

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