From left to right: Christiaan Bakkes and Marcia Fargnoli, Legal Assistance Centre; Sorell E. Negro, Robinson & Cole; Jordan Lesser, New York State Assembly (representing the ABA Section of State and Local Government Law for this pro bono project); and Willem Odendaal, Legal Assistance Centre. (courtesy photo)
It was six months ago that Sorell E. Negro approached the top attorneys at Robinson & Cole about a pro bono project combating the growing problem of wildlife crimes—especially poaching—in Namibia, Africa.
The law firm, which has several projects it consults on for no charge, jumped at Negro’s idea. Now, the firm is preparing to release its second report on poaching as it continues to work with Namibian officials to strengthen its legal system.
Negro, who works out of the firm’s Miami office, joined forces with Robinson & Cole attorneys in Hartford and Stamford and reached out to others outside the firm to not only bring awareness to the issue, but to also offer solutions included in the reports.
Negro and her colleagues contacted the international law firm DLA Piper, the U.K.’s Royal Foundation and Jordan Lesser, a staff attorney with the New York State Assembly who was representing the American Bar Association.
Not content to spearhead the project from a desk in the United States, Negro reached out to Namibia’s “Legal Assistance Centre,” a nonprofit in that country. Negro, Lesser and members of the Legal Assistance Centre spent 10 days in Namibia in September addressing poaching.
“We had many meetings with government officials, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and attorneys with the Centre,” Negro told the Connecticut Law Tribune Tuesday. “We traveled to the north and northwestern parts of the country where there have been serious issues with poaching.”
One report already came out of the visit and a second should be released later this month. Both reports address ways Namibian officials can better address problems associated with poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking. A draft report by the firm released in October recommends the country establish its first-ever environmental courts to specifically handle environmental cases.
The recommendations include having wildlife crime prosecutors who would need to undergo specific training. Namibia would need to draft legislation to establish the special court and prosecutor.
The second report contains recommendations on increasing penalties, and deals with land use laws.
Currently, the maximum fine if caught poaching is about $16,700. While there are laws on the books for prison terms of up to 20 years, most people, if they do go to jail, serve significantly less, Negro said. “The vast majority of poaching cases are not prosecuted,” she added.
Negro, who has worked closely on the Robinson & Cole team with Peter R. Knight and Emily C. Deans from the Hartford office, said she learned from those in Namibia that poaching is almost commonplace. While lions and giraffes are killed for their bones and are increasingly sold on the black market, the real money in poaching is made by killing black rhinos and elephants.
Of the approximately 5,000 black rhinos in the world, about 28 percent are located in Namibia. According to Negro, the country lost 16 black rhinos to poaching from January 2005 to December 2013. But, she said, 24 were killed in 2014; and since 2015, the number has skyrocketed to more than 130.
Similarly, the number of elephants killed have also gone up over the years. Officials said one kilogram of a black rhino’s horn, which is said to be used for medicinal purposes, can sell for upward of $60,000 on the black market. Ivory from elephants can go for $1,000 a pound, Negro added.
Poaching is illegal in Namibia, although there are loopholes.
“One is if an animal is seen as dangerous or threatening,” Negro said. “Then there could be justification. But [the law] is very broad and abused.”
Knight, the firm’s pro bono partner, said “Robinson & Cole wants people to follow their passions when it comes to pro bono [work]. When Sorell made the proposal, we ran it by the highest levels of the firm’s management and they bought on without reservations. We are making a difference on an issue that has global importance.”
Knight said the firm is “committed” to seeing the project to its conclusion, which could mean going beyond 2017.
To date, Robinson & Cole officials said, the six attorneys from the firm involved in the project have logged about 400 hours, equivalent to about $125,000.