Stock-theft remains challenge for police

By Tsitsi Matope

MASERU — Running battles between the police and livestock-thieves are a regular occurrence in the country’s mountainous districts — a situation which continues to have both economic and social repercussions for Lesotho.

Districts such as Mokhotlong, Butha-Buthe, Qacha’s Nek, Thaba-Tseka and Quthing remain targets for the marauding rustlers due to their inaccessibility.

It takes law-enforcement agents a long time to reach such areas for investigations, leaving residents in constant fear of losing not only their animals but also their lives.

According to the police, more than 2 000 cases of stolen cattle, horses, goats, sheep and pigs are reported annually countrywide and in a desperate bid to protect their families and property from the ruthless robbers, villagers end up resorting to illegal means of acquiring firearms, compounding an already complex situation.

With the majority of families in such areas relying on livestock for their livelihoods, losing their animals is such a catastrophe that many find difficult to recover from, in some instances leading to their premature deaths.

It is this feeling of insecurity and vulnerability that has forced some families to abandon livestock-farming or even relocate to urban areas to explore other means of survival, robbing the country of its home-grown producers of meat and related products such as milk, wool and mohair.

According to the Officer Commanding Police Anti-Stock Theft Unit, Assistant Commissioner Masupha Masupha, some of the stolen animals are sold locally while others are smuggled into South Africa.

Between January and October this year, a total of 1 932 cattle, 722 horses, 598 donkeys,

3 454 sheep, 737 goats and 25 pigs were reported stolen countrywide, according to Masupha.

Of this stolen livestock, 958 cattle, 289 horses, 132 donkeys, 384 goats and nine pigs were recovered.

The Police Anti-Stock Theft Unit, he added, also managed to repatriate 256 of Lesotho livestock from South Africa, while 269 were returned to South Africa.

With more than 7 000 animals reported stolen over 10 months, notwithstanding the hundreds of chickens and rabbits which go missing on a daily basis, it comes as no surprise that the Police Anti-Stock Theft Unit has declared stock-theft one of the major crises currently facing Lesotho.

But with just 59 convictions out of the 234 cases prosecuted between January and October this year, it seems the war on livestock theft is far from being won.

Masupha believes the speedy conclusion of stock-theft trials could go a long way in deterring potential rustlers.

he says the Police Anti-Stock Theft Unit,  is also currently working on multiple strategies to combat the theft of livestock, a crime which continues to give farmers sleepless nights.

Masupha has also proposed the establishment of an Anti-Stock Theft Intelligence Unit within the Lesotho Mounted Police Service, which he believes would increase the capacity of the current structure.

But, according to Masupha, ensuring suspects are appropriately charged under the Stock Theft Act of 2006 would help combat the scourge whose repercussions appear to be underestimated by some stakeholders.

“We have the anti-stock-theft law that clearly stipulates what should happen to anyone who steals, receives stolen animals or conceals information that could lead to the recovery of stolen livestock.

“We are working at ensuring that we fully and effectively operationalise this law as one measure of combating stock-theft.”

The Stock Theft Act stipulates a fine of up to M50 000 for a first conviction or a jail term of up to 25 years, and Masupha believes ensuring offenders get such stiff sentences would go a long way in eradicating livestock-theft.

“These sentences are irrespective of how many animals one would have stolen — even after stealing one cow, convicts can go to jail for 25 years.

“We are advocating such maximum sentences to make criminals understand how serious we are about combating stock-theft,” Masupha said, further noting the law also states that those convicted of stock-theft more than once, could be fined M100 000 and sentenced to 50 years in jail.

“In other countries, the jail-term goes up to 100 years. This goes to demonstrate the concern over how this crime can, indeed, destabilise the economic and social pattern of any country.”

With well over three million livestock in the country, Masupha said Lesotho is a livestock country. Had it not been for the high, stock-theft incidences experienced over the years, Lesotho could be having a more thriving livestock-farming sector.

“Every year, the country loses more than M15 million worth of animals, many of which are sold cheaply not only on the local market but also through some illegal networks in South Africa.”

Masupha also said his unit is concerned about the health consequences associated with the consumption of uninspected meat from the stolen animals.

“Eating such meat can be dangerous.

“It is very disturbing that some local businesses, which include catering companies and butcheries, don’t seem concerned at all, about the consequences of selling meat they know would have been stolen and uninspected by the relevant health inspectors.”

He urged the relevant authorities to put more effort into reviving operations at the national abattoir and create small-scale establishments in the districts to bring a new buying and selling system into Lesotho.

“Such a situation can help straighten the meat market and ensure all bulk supplies emanate from legal sources.

“It would also ease control mechanisms by making buyers account for the meat they sell.

“At the moment, it is difficult to reinforce some of our measures because operators have to look for their own sources of meat in the absence of national abattoirs.”

An interim market or auction system, according to Masupha, could also be applied while abattoir logistics are being worked out.

Another concern, Masupha said, was the widespread and uncontrolled cross-border movement of livestock, which he said fuelled the spread of livestock diseases.

“That is why it is very important for everyone to be working together to ensure we all contribute towards creating a country free of deadly livestock epidemics such as foot-and-mouth which not only kill the animals but also human-beings who eat the infected meat.”

As a way of enhancing anti-stock-theft strategies, Masupha said the police were also holding public gatherings to make all livestock farmers aware of how they could strengthen community policing initiatives.

“We continue analysing the modus-operandi of stock-thieves in various areas and share this information with farmers to keep them alert.”

Masupha  said putting “secret” markings on livestock, apart from the common ear marks, would also help owners easily identify their animals should they be stolen and later recovered.

“This year, we could not establish the ownership of 1 180 animals recovered during our operations, which would not have been the case had the owners put these secret marks I am talking about.

“The other thing is that some of these criminals are in the practice of identifying marks that are similar but are being used by different farmers.

“They then steal livestock from one of the farmers and sell the animals to the other unsuspecting farmer, hence the importance of having the secret markings.”

Masupha  said chiefs should be at the forefront of ensuring that they do not register newly acquired animals without proper documentation.

“We know there are some traditional leaders or those acting on behalf of chiefs, who are accepting verbal explanations for the registration of animals in the master-stock register.

“But the problem is many of these animals would have been stolen, which is why the registration should not be done by just anybody.”

The introduction of a newly formatted master-stock register next year should go a long way in addressing this problem, according to Masupha.

“This new, structured register will provide enough space on which information regarding the sales and purchases of all individual farmers would be clearly recorded.”

He added all livestock-buyers should also be in possession of stock or wool permits (Mabeisi a liphoofolo kapa boea) to prove ownership.

“We are also putting in place measures that will help us deal with the issuance of fake permits and illegal use of permits for cattle, for example, to justify the ownership of horses.”

Masupha said, during this festive season, his unit would be out in full force to ensure there is no transportation and sale of stolen animals.

“Through our own intelligence, we have already started the surveillance of all butcheries in the country’s urban areas.

“Our officers are also going to be at all road check-points, carefully checking all the documentation of the animals being transported.”

The police officers, Masupha further noted, would also be closely monitoring operations at all livestock sales points countrywide.

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