Our Burning Planet


SA couple sentenced for unlawfully exporting vulnerable sungazer lizards

SA couple sentenced for unlawfully exporting vulnerable sungazer lizards
Sungazer lizards are endemic to South Africa and therefore found nowhere else in the world and are listed globally as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (Photo: Bradley Gibbons | EWT)

A yearslong investigation by the Green Scorpions paid off on Monday when two South Africans were sentenced for smuggling vulnerable sungazer lizards.

Husband and wife Gerald and Elisha van der Westhuizen were on Monday convicted and sentenced at the Kempton Park Magistrates’ Court for the unlawful export of vulnerable sungazer lizards and money laundering.

“It is essential to recognise that biodiversity crimes, unlike other forms of crime, are a time-critical issue. Our natural resources are finite and may have permanent consequences,” read the plea and sentencing agreement between the prosecutor and the accused.

Sungazers, a species endemic to South Africa, are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species and locally in the 2014 Atlas and Red List of the Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.

The couple was sentenced after pleading guilty to five counts related to exporting species listed in the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) without a permit and four counts related to money laundering and the use of the proceeds from unlawful action.

The exporting of sungazer lizards contravenes the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (Nemba).

Gerald van der Westhuizen, who was charged with exporting the vulnerable species, was sentenced to pay a fine of R1-million, half of which was suspended for five years on condition that he is not convicted of contravening Nemba in the next five years.

Elisha van der Westhuizen, who was charged with laundering the payment the couple received for the species, was sentenced to five years of direct imprisonment, suspended for five years on condition that she does not contravene Nemba within that period.

How the investigation went down

On 24 May 2019, SA Revenue Service customs officials were conducting a routine inspection at OR Tambo International Mail Centre when they found a parcel on its way to Germany containing six sungazer lizards, two of which were dead.

The package was declared as a “gift teddy and candies”, with the lizards hidden inside the stuffed toy.

More than two years later, on 19 November 2021, two German nationals, Daniël Löhde and Marko Drescher, were arrested in Northern Cape and convicted for the illegal possession of and attempt to export listed reptiles.

At the time, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) said in a statement that the arrests were the result of a “multi-agency reptile undercover operation”. 

It said, “The collaboration by all members of the multidisciplinary team is to be commended. Without the dedication of the Green Scorpions, members of the security establishment, provincial officials and the private sector, we will not be able to win the war against wildlife crime.”

During the arrest, the German nationals’ phones were legally seized, which is how the Green Scorpions investigators were able to link the Van der Westhuizens to the crime. They found WhatsApp conversations, voice notes and photos between Lohde and Gerald van der Westhuizen about exporting sungazer lizards.

Guilty pleas

The accused, represented by attorney Crystal Keevy, entered into a plea agreement with the prosecutor, Pieter Erasmus. 

Gerald van der Westhuizen pleaded guilty to unlawfully and intentionally exporting the six lizards that were found at OR Tambo on 24 May 2019, and to exporting species listed in Cites to Germany between 16 April and 7 May 2019 (before the OR Tambo incident), and to exporting the species to Mexico between 21 June and 6 August 2021 — totalling 18 sungazer lizards and three (attempted) exports requested by Lohde. 

Elisha was charged with money laundering and possession or use of proceeds of unlawful activities after she received three payments from Löhde into her PayPal accounts, totalling R90,928 for 18 lizards in 2019.

Sungazers are listed as a vulnerable species. (Photo: Bradley Gibbons / EWT)

A vulnerable species

Bradley Gibbons, a senior field officer at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, explained that sungazers “are found in a unique grassland type, making them habitat specialists, and [they] do not translocate easily, with many individuals not surviving during this process”.

Sungazers are listed as a vulnerable species, which means they face a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.  

“They are popular for the pet trade due to their characteristic posture and being calm,” Gibbons explained.

“Besides the use of Sungazers as live pets, the use of dead individuals is for traditional purposes when individuals are taken from the wild for use in muti [traditional medicine] as well as various forms of beliefs based on superstition to offer protection.” DM

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Epsilon Indi says:

    Another species the muthi makers prey on. When will this nonsense with muthi stop, it’s a barbaric practice and needs to end.

  • Susan Buekes says:

    Why such lenient sentences? After all the effort that went into the investigation, suspended sentences are no deterrent. It is no wonder other crimes against endangered species still occur.

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