Scaly oaks: Not even trees are safe from criminals
It's a 'total free-for-all' as thieves take their often sophisticated enterprises to the forests
SA thieves have expanded their criminal outlook and taken their enterprises to new heights, literally.
No longer satisfied with breaking into homes, shoplifting, pickpocketing or stealing cars, sophisticated theft syndicates are now targeting trees.
Thousands of trees and seedlings are stolen annually from plantations, off the back of logging trucks and out of timber yards.
The country’s timber industry, according to insiders, is worth an estimated R10bn a year.
The crime has grown so rapidly that Forestry SA launched a survey this week to establish the scale of the problem.
“It has literally exploded,” said Forestry SA operations manager Francois Oberholzer.
SA has 1.2m hectares of plantations.
The syndicates, say tree theft and risk investigators, are targeting commercial and small-scale growers, with KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga labelled as hot spots.
Transvaal Wattle Growers' Co-operative (TWK-AGRI) timber theft investigator Gert Erasmus said there was a definite increase in the crime.
“At the moment it is a total free-for-all. The thieves feed legitimate markets, predominantly linked to the housing construction industry.”
Erasmus said the syndicates stole trees through various methods.
“One way is through skimming, and involves truck drivers transporting trees to mills. The thieves steal up to three tons of trees from a truck, usually targeting multiple vehicles at a time.
“Those who transport the stolen logs usually get paid R300 per ton. If the entire load of about 30 tons is stolen they can make a lot of money.”
Thieves also raid plantations.
“They use five-man teams, who collectively can harvest up to 500 trees in a day from a single plantation. They raid multiple plantations simultaneously, stealing thousands of trees a day,” Erasmus said.
“The syndicate gets a R110 per tree. They make thousands of rands and are seldom caught because they target the centre of the plantation where they are out of sight.
“The other method of theft happens on the edge of forests where thieves, usually at night, cut down trees bordering roads. The plantation thefts are only noticed when owners conduct their inspections, usually long after the theft has happened. The biggest losses occur in plantations.”
The thieves used handsaws to minimise noise, targeting trees 3m high because they were easy to cut down.
The demand for stolen trees came from hardware stores and the housing construction industry in rural areas.
Mpumalanga timber transporter Mahlanzeni Nzimande, who deals in blue gum and wattle trees, said he lost an average of R170,000 a month through the theft of logs from his trucks.
He said sent he sent 15 trucks with timber to the mills in Richards Bay every week, and almost without fail each truck would have up to three tons of trees stolen from it.
“A ton of wattle is worth R1,150. If you are hit for three tons a vehicle, the financial losses are huge. In this business the profit margin is thin, so any theft cripples you.”
Through the TWK-AGRI co-operative, which had installed cameras on known hot spot routes, they had caught several of his drivers helping syndicates steal trees from his trucks.
“The cameras have helped, as well as compelling drivers to stop at weighbridges en route to the mills and at the mills.”
Ferdie Brauckmann, TWK-AGRI timber executive manager, said fighting the crime was a constant battle, which involved turning to technology.
“The technology includes geo-locating trees and timber under transport. This helps us detect exactly where the trees come from, where vehicles stop and if there are any diversions.
“The sophisticated syndicates are those who raid plantations, which cover 1.2 million hectares. To protect their plantations, owners are fencing them in, which is a costly exercise.”
“Reports we receive show plantations are being hollowed out from the inside. This crime is difficult to police because of the plantations’ size and their rural location,” Oberholzer said.
Standing trees were targeted over harvested logs, “because once it’s in the sale chain it is usually carefully monitored”.
Thieves also targeted freshly planted seedlings, which are seen as prime trees.
“These syndicates are sophisticated and have members throughout the timber chain, including those who supplied documentation required to sell timber to mills.
“You cannot just arrive at a mill and sell 36 tons of timber. You need the documents, which the syndicates forge.”
Sappi spokesperson Zelda Schwalbach said the company had noted an increase in timber and seedling theft, which was largely syndicate driven.
The company was exploring different technologies to combat the theft and had placed its security on high alert and increased monitoring at its depots, plantations and properties.
Mondi failed to respond to questions.