Six members of a syndicate implicated in “massive trafficking of poached rhino horns” from wildlife reserves‚ destined for sale in Asia via Gauteng middlemen‚ have been arrested.
Two policemen and a former policeman were caught alongside two alleged syndicate leaders and a right-hand man trapped on Tuesday by a high-level team tracking the criminal supply chain of poached rhinos within the Kruger National Park‚ KwaZulu-Natal‚ Gauteng and other private or state-owned reserves.
They were arrested in a number of areas in Mpumalanga.
“The syndicate members allegedly ran poaching groups with the support of corrupt police officials as well as authorities from the private game farms‚” said Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi.
During the raids‚ police confiscated luxury vehicles and motorbikes‚ trucks‚ an undisclosed amount of money‚ animal skins‚ suspected stolen items‚ including trailers‚ generators and various electronic equipment‚ as well as properties.
The arrests were made by the Hawks supported by Counter Intelligence‚ Special Task Force‚ SAPS Forensic Science Service‚ SANParks‚ the Department of Environmental Affairs‚ SARS and Customs including the National Prosecuting Authority.
They are expected to appear at the White River Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday afternoon‚ facing charges of theft‚ conspiracy to commit a crime‚ illegal buying and selling of rhino horns‚ corruption and money laundering.
Internal disciplinary processes are already under way for the arrested police officers.
The significant breakthrough follows an investigation‚ dubbed Project Broadbill‚ by the Wildlife Trafficking Section of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks)‚ which began in January last year.
The syndicate members allegedly ran poaching groups with the support of corrupt police officials as well as authorities from the private game farms.
Mulaudzi said the areas in control of the alleged syndicate included traditional trust areas such as Cork‚ Belfast‚ Mkhuhlu‚ Calcutta and Shabalala Trust around the Hazyview and Mbombela magisterial districts within Mpumalanga.
“The criminal operations were well planned and allegedly achieved with para-military discipline and counter intelligence actions to prevent any exposure.
“The logistical‚ transport and communication support of the criminal group was also well managed and controlled and allegedly succeeded to move rhino horns from the protected areas to places where the transactions will take place. The illegal transactions were also protected by alleged corrupt officials to ensure no detection from law enforcement.
“The rhino horns would allegedly get sold at the highest price to the markets within Gauteng‚ whereafter it would get distributed to the south-east Asian markets.”
National Hawks boss Lieutenant-General Godfrey Lebeya hailed the operation as a huge success in the fight against rhino poaching in South Africa.
“We have often been seized with picking up the remains of endangered species and not finding and arresting the poachers and traffickers behind the crime.
“The operation spells hope for rhinos and other endangered species and we are fully committed to eradicating poaching and trafficking.
“We will continue teaming up with key enforcement partners and government departments in carrying out crucial investigations and arresting those behind the slaughter of our wild life‚” said Lebeya.
Mulaudzi said the operation was ongoing‚ with more seizures and possible arrests expected.