Timber theft

June 26, 2012

Timber growers are reeling from a wave of timber and equipment theft that is sweeping across the country. The losses incurred are running into millions of Rands every year, and are compounded as beefed up security costs mount, cutting deeper into the bottom line.

Illegally harvested timber poles Truck used by timber thieves
This truck was being used by suspected timber thieves to load the illegally harvested poles. Truck used by suspected timber thieves to transport stolen timber out of the plantations.


Worst hit areas appear to be the Mpumalanga lowveld, and KwaZulu-Natal – especially around Piet Retief/Vryheid and Richards Bay. However, nobody is spared, as it seems wherever timber grows, thieves will inevitably be at work.

Whereas in the past, incidents of timber and equipment theft were sporadic and appeared to be largely opportunistic crimes, now the criminals are often well organised and resourced to steal on a much bigger scale. The criminals are also becoming more sophisticated, finding ingenious ways to de-fraud, skim and pilfer from plantations, depots, trucks and mills.

While it is impossible to calculate the value of timber stolen by criminals because so many incidents are unreported, and in many cases the losses are not accurately quantified, there is no doubt that it runs into millions of Rands.

Most of the big growers have been forced to beef up their security, employing top level former police detectives as risk control managers as well as more security contractors on the ground. While this is good business for the security industry, it adds to growers' overheads.

It's also a reflection of a general lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the police services and the justice system. The costs of crime prevention are falling increasingly on the private sector.

A number of growers have told SA Forestry magazine that they believe the police in some areas are involved in the thefts, and that they are often reluctant to open cases when incidents of timber theft are reported.

However, there are instances where the local police and security staff of timber growers have worked effectively together to make arrests and bring cases to court, for example the case of 22 timber theft suspects currently being tried in Piet Retief.

There is a growing realisation that preventing timber theft can best be done in collaboration with the other stakeholders who are also being targeted by criminals. The principle is that by sharing information, you are more likely to be able to identify the key players in the theft rackets and put them out of business. Also, if you chase the criminals from your plantation, they'll just go and steal from somebody else's, so you might as well work together.

Anti-timber theft forums

Three anti-timber theft forums have been active in KwaZulu-Natal for the past five or six years. The forums are based in Greytown, Piet Retief/Vryheid and around Richards Bay. According to Rob Thompson of NCT, these forums have been instrumental in raising awareness and improving the level of co-operation between timber growers, transporters, contractors, the mills and the police. Rob says that although timber theft convictions have been few and far between, the improved awareness and co-operation among stakeholders has been effective.

Lowveld timber farmers mobilise

Meanwhile, growers in the Mpumalanga lowveld area, who have been bearing the brunt of the current crime wave, are 'gatvol' and have established the Mpumalanga Timber Theft Forum (MTTF). It has an active committee headed up by current Chairman, Pieter Knipschild from Sappi, and a full-time admin officer, Janet Sanderson, employed by the Lowveld and Escarpment Fire Protection Association and based at their Nelspruit offices.

The MTTF was set up in 2010 by a 'working group' of concerned timber growers. According to Pieter, they met with the police and the organised crime unit and were told that timber theft and equipment theft was 'not their problem'. Thereafter, they started engaging with the local police stations and prosecutors, and with FSA. They have established a central database to capture information relating to timber and equipment theft, which is managed by Janet from the LEFPA offices.

The MTTF's objectives are to:

  • reduce timber theft and related crimes;
  • create awareness of these crimes among members of the public, law enforcement officials and within the industry;
  • encourage cooperation among forestry stakeholders;
  • ensure successful arrests and convictions.

"We need to put pressure on the police and government to help us tackle this scourge," said Pieter at a MTTF meeting held at Sabie recently. "We are losing millions of Rands worth of timber. They are stealing now from infield, from depots, from everywhere."

"There are lots of markets accepting suspected stolen timber, and we want to stop that. We want a fair market, to stop timber being sold for R200 a ton," he said. "There is also a lot of equipment being stolen – chainsaws, Bell loggers, pumps ..."
He advised members not to attempt to arrest the criminals themselves as they are "armed and dangerous" and operate in groups of up to 20 people.

Pieter urged members to open a police docket and get a case number for every incident. The police are sometimes reluctant to open a case if there is no suspect, but they are obliged to do so.

It is also very important for members to fill in a MTTF incident report and send it to Janet at the LEFPA offices. Email her at: permit@lefpa.co.za. The information will assist with the criminal investigations and will be a useful tool in raising awareness and putting pressure on law enforcement agencies to take it seriously.

Ben Bothma of KLF urged stakeholders to work together just as they do to prevent fires. "A fire on my land is everyone's fire because it does not recognise boundaries. In the same way, if you chase timber thieves off your land they will just go and steal timber from someone else."

Securing a conviction

Tobie Steyn, a public prosecutor based at Nelspruit, was invited to the Sabie meeting to share information about how best to secure a conviction.

He said it was crucial to get the police involved in a case and to share information with them, as they are the investigating authority. While it is not necessary to have a suspect to get a case opened by the police, it is essential to have a suspect in order to get a case into court. Information that makes a connection between your property, the timber and the suspect is essential. He said it's also important to bring background information about timber theft to the case as well as this will give the prosecutor and magistrate a better idea of the seriousness of the crime.

Tobie said that the most common defence in timber theft cases is: "I was picked up on the side of the road and offered a job to cut timber and was shown the plantation ..."

Hard evidence connecting the accused to the crime is required to counter this argument. He said it's important to put up signposts at all the entrances to your plantations, and along the boundaries, indicating that it is private property and trespassers will be prosecuted.

Blacklisting could also be a useful tool in the hands of farmers to keep criminals out of plantations, but he advised members not to make the information public as you could end up in trouble yourself.

Asset forfeiture

An effective tool in combating timber theft and related crimes is the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU), which is part of the National Prosecuting Authority. Kobus van der Walt of the AFU provided an insight into how the unit can help to break up organised crime syndicates.

He advised members to identify and focus on the ringleaders because it will have the biggest impact on reducing crime, and to get cases registered with the Organised Crime Unit.

The AFU can seize equipment used in the commission of crimes, as well as assets acquired with the proceeds of crime. Unlike the courts which can only convict in cases where the accused is guilty 'beyond reasonable doubt', the AFU can seize assets in cases where an accused is considered guilty on a 'balance of probabilities'. Thus, a conviction is not always necessary.

"If you find a truck in your plantation loaded with poles and see people running away, you can call the police to seize the truck and use Chapter 6 of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act to keep it," said Kobus. "The onus is on the owner of the vehicle to prove that the property was not used in the commission of a crime. It is also possible to freeze their bank account."

A member of SAPS, SARS, prosecutors or even a MTTF member could refer a case to the AFU task team that will undertake its own investigation.

"Asset forfeiture is vital in the war against crime. It hits crime bosses where it hurts most – in the pocket. Asset forfeiture takes the profit (motive) out of crime," he said.

He advised members to draw up an affidavit providing detailed stats on timber theft and include it with every case docket to make it clear to prosecutors and magistrates why this crime is so serious.

"You need to get timber theft onto the agenda so it can compete with crimes like stocktheft, rhino poaching, car hijacking and murder," concluded Kobus.

Timber theft prevention measures

Rob Thompson of NCT, who has been involved in the anti-timber theft forums in KwaZulu-Natal for a number of years, says that timber theft manifests in many guises. The most common include illicit felling of standing timber, skimming of long haul road rigs and rail wagons, removal of depot stocks and manipulation of delivery documentation.

He believes that as a first step, growers need to keep tight control over their timber stocks as they move down the logistics chain from plantation to mill. With good control measures in place, timber suppliers can quantify timber lost through theft and identify the time and place of the theft.

With information like that, you have a better chance of identifying suspects, securing convictions, eliminating further thefts from the same site and recovering your timber, he said.

Rob listed a number of useful measures that have proved to be effective in reducing timber theft:

  • Keep accurate records of depot stocks, and monitor in and out-flow diligently.
  • Apply timber dye to felled timber immediately.
  • Build a relationship with your mill and get them to report suspect loads.
  • Consider spraying a swath of dye over the load once it's on the truck. This will make it easy to see if the load has been disturbed en route.
  • Take a photo of your loads on departure from depot, and get the mill to do the same at the other end – then compare the photos.
  • Do not allow loads to leave your property without proper, descriptive documentation.
  • If you become aware of illegal felling in-field, notch or secretly mark trees in the vicinity of the illegal operations, and then get your mill to look out for the secretly marked timber.
  • Ensure you have a rep on the local anti-timber theft committee and keep abreast of the issues.
  • When buying in timber, do regular physical spot-checks on the origin.
  • Keep on top of your planning and harvesting schedule. Don't delegate to contractors to decide where to fell.
  • Be sure of the expected tonnages from your compartments. Do an enumeration exercise.
  • Have a responsible conductor to supervise loading.

Check the references of contractors and transporters that you employ.

Rob maintains that proper documentation accompanying loads en route to the mill or buyer is an area where improvement is needed.

"There should be no timber load on the road without proper documentation," he said.

Counting the cost of timber and equipment theft

National statistics on timber and equipment theft affecting forestry are not available, however, the following information provides some perspective on the extent of the losses incurred.

The Mpumalanga Timber Theft Forum has been gathering information on reported incidents occurring in the lowveld area of Mpumalanga, which includes Barberton, Nelspruit/White River and Sabie/Graskop since June 2011. The stats reflect information taken only from cases that have been reported to the MTTF committee. There are many incidents that have not been reported, so the real numbers are estimated to be much higher.

There have been 30 reported cases of timber theft with an estimated value of R939 369, although in three of the cases, the value of timber stolen is unknown. Only a third of the timber has been recovered, mainly through the work of internal operations within the forestry companies.

In terms of machinery and equipment theft, 11 cases have been reported to the committee with an estimated value of R1 267 000 of which only 4.8% has been recovered. Historical data on chainsaw theft (prior to June 2011) shows 55 cases opened on chainsaw theft with 1 080 chainsaws stolen with an estimated value of R5.1 million.

The information gathered by MTTF reveals that 27% of the theft is related to machinery/equipment theft (chainsaws, pumps, Bell loggers etc.), and 73% of the theft is timber.

Dick Clauch of Safind Forest Products, which operates 13 000 ha of mainly gum plantations around Bushbuckridge and White River, was one of the growers who attended the Mpumalanga Timber Theft Forum meeting in Sabie. He told SA Forestry magazine that 25 chainsaws have been stolen from his harvesting teams in the past year alone. In one incident, a security guard was strangled and killed with his own bootlaces during a theft of five chainsaws which were locked away in a container. He said harvesting teams have on occasions been held up with guns and robbed.

Dick said that trees in the three to four-year age class are prime targets for thieves as they make good building and fencing poles. Trees are often cut with bow-saws at around waist height.

He urged people to look out for trucks carrying gum and/or wattle timber that still has its bark on – that could be a sign that it is stolen. He said his security bill alone is in the region of R151 000 a month.

Intensive investigations by Mondi's Asset Protection Unit working with local police resulted in the arrest in July last year of a suspected timber theft syndicate operating around Piet Retief. A total of 22 suspects were arrested in the swoop, which also netted nine vehicles, two firearms and 14 cell phones.

The suspects have appeared in the Piet Retief magistrate's court on seven charges of timber theft. The case is continuing.

The arrests followed a sharp increase in the theft of standing timber in Piet Retief and surrounding areas. It is estimated that some 18 000 trees were stolen from Mondi plantations alone in a six-month period, with 500 trees stolen in one incident.

Hendrik de Jongh, MD of Sappi Forests, told SA Forestry magazine that he estimates that around 5-10% of Sappi's timber could be stolen. The company has employed three former police detectives as risk managers, and kitted them out with the latest technology, to combat the crime wave.

"You can catch the timber thieves, but you can't get a conviction. We have 45 unresolved timber theft cases," he said.

All the anti-timber theft forums active around the country are feeding info about timber theft to Roger Godsmark at Forestry South Africa in an effort to keep track of the losses incurred by timber growers and suppliers.

Published in April 2012

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