By Nicolene Smalman
A field guide and the gardener of the section ranger were allegedly busy dehorning a white rhino when the officials stumbled upon them
LOWER SABIE – Three SANParks employees were apprehended for rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park (KNP) on the eve of World Rhino Day.
Two were caught in the act of dehorning the animal they had just killed. The third suspect is no one other than the section ranger of Lower Sabie, who allegedly supplied his two accomplices with the rifle they had used to slaughter the animal.
These arrests were secured due to police and SANParks officials being in the right place at the right time. They were busy with routine operations in the park – visiting old poaching scenes in the Lower Sabie area – collecting DNA and valuable evidence, when they heard two shots being fired.
They immediately went in the direction of the shots that had been fired and made a gruesome discovery. A field guide and the gardener of the section ranger were allegedly busy dehorning a white rhino when the officials stumbled upon them.
They were immediately arrested and a hunting rifle, ammunition, vehicle and poaching equipment were seized.
It later emerged that the rifle they had used to kill the animal, apparently belonged to the section ranger – a .458 calibre. Rangers are usually issued with R1 rifles, as well as .458 and .375 calibres to protect tourists on walking trails. The section ranger was also apprehended.
The men were detained in the holding cells at Skukuza Police Station and would formally be charged today when they appear in the White River Magistrate’s Court on poaching-related charges. A strong presence from conservation enthusiasts is expected at the court today. Mr Ian McDonald, game ranging and wildlife management senior lecturer at Unigrad, also indicated that he and his students would attend.
Mr Abe Sibiya, acting CEO of SANParks, congratulated the officials who effected the arrests for outstanding work. “These send a strong message that officials alleged to be involved in poaching, will be arrested and face the full might of the law,” Sibiya said.
“It is unfortunate that those trusted with the well-being of these animals are alleged to have become the destroyers of the same heritage they have a mandate to protect.”
• Ironically, also on World Rhino Day, 10 members of a suspected rhino-poaching syndicate appeared in the Hatfield Magistrate’s Court on several poaching-related charges.
The syndicate is believed to have operated in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West, Gauteng, and KwaZulu-Natal.
They have been remanded in police custody for seven days until their formal bail application hearing on September 29. The suspects are Mr Hugo Ras, his wife, Ms Trudie Ras, and his brothers, Messrs Anton Ras and Arno Smith, Bonnie Steyn, a pilot of Ficksburg, WO Willie Oosthuizen of the Hawks in Pretoria, Messrs Joseph Wilkinson, an attorney of Pretoria, Christoffel Scheepers, Mandla Magagula and Willem van Jaarsveld. They are between the ages of 30 and 50. The directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, the Hawks, arrested them on Friday.
Wilkinson approached the Pretoria High Court for an urgent bail application the following day, but didn’t succeed.
The arrest came after a year-long investigation by key stakeholders in government and the private sector, namely the department of environmental affairs and tourism, the Department of Home Affairs, SAPS detectives, crime intelligence, the forensic science laboratory, National Prosecuting Authority, the Veterinary Council of South Africa and Protea Coin Security.
The Hawks’ investigating team arrested Ras, who was believed to have managed the syndicate’s activities for nearly five years. The team arrested the other members of this criminal group simultaneously in Polokwane in Limpopo, Ficksburg in the Free State, Potchefstroom in the North West, and in Montana, Mamelodi and Kameeldrift in Gauteng.
The group was alleged to have contributed to the brutal slaughter and mutilation of 24 rhinos in state-owned and privately owned game reserves. Only two of the 24 rhinos that were attacked, survived, but were dehorned after they were darted. The 34 horns were either stolen or obtained through other devious means.
The ruthless killings took place between 2008 and 2012. In total, the syndicate illegally obtained 84 rhino horns and killed 22 rhinos valued at nearly R22 million. Video.