'Blood on their hands'

2009-09-18 00:00

FOUR alleged rhino poachers who were caught “red-handed” with blood dripping from their clothing and in possession of two freshly hacked off white rhino horns in their bakkie just outside Imfolozi game reserve on August 26, were granted bail of R10 000 each yesterday by a magistrate at kwaMbonambi, despite opposition voiced by wildlife investigators.

Magistrate P.Z. Xulu said although investigators testified that they suspect that the four men — one of whom was a soldier attached to 121 Battalion at Mtububatuba at the time — are part of a syndicate, there was no actual evidence linking them to the international rhino horn trade yet.

He said the evidence of Organised Crime Unit member Danie Reyneke, that he fears the accused will evade their trial if released, is also based on suspicion, as well as the seriousness of the charges and the severity of the sentences the accused could face, which might be as high as 20 years’ imprisonment. He said this fear could be addressed by imposing bail conditions to which the accused must adhere or they will immediately go back to jail.

Mtungokwakhe Khoza (40) of Ulundi, Sifiso Ngema (19) of Empangeni, Ayanda Buthelezi (30), who lives and works in Vosloorus, and recently suspended SANDF member Mduduzi Xulu (40) did not testify, but submitted affidavits in which they stated that they will plead not guilty to the nine charges. Their defence is a “bare denial”, said their advocate Mdu Mvune, instructed by Mthokozisi Mazibuko of Durban.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife investigator Rod Potter gave evidence that there has been an alarming increase in rhino poaching in 2008 and 2009 both in KwaZulu-Natal and countrywide.

He said last year 80 rhinos were hunted illegally in South Africa, and this year the figure has already risen to 85 although the year is not over.

The most recent poaching incident occurred in the Eastern Cape on Wednesday.

Potter said the increase in rhino poaching in KZN is of particular concern, because private game reserves are now showing reluctance to stock rhino because of the threat by poachers, affecting plans to expand rhino populations. He said EKZNW usually disposes of “excess” rhinos on auction to the private sector, but owners don’t want to spend money on animals that are at risk of being poached. On average, a rhino would fetch R202 000.

He said the poaching of rhino will impact on local and international tourism.

He said research has shown that rhinos are mainly being killed — either shot or snared — by poachers for their horns, which are traded mainly to Eastern countries. The horn is a popular ingredient of Chinese traditional medicine. Although there is limited demand for rhino horn in South African traditional medicines, it is insignificant and it is clear the rhino horn is intended for the international market.

Reyneke said rhino horn sells for between R35 000 and R45 000 per kilogram on the black market. He said the horns seized from the four accused weigh in the region of 11 kilograms.

Reyneke said the accused were caught less than two hours after rangers at Imfolozi heard a gunshot, and section ranger Lawrence Munro contacted police and set up a roadblock. The Nissan bakkie owned and driven by Buthelezi was the first vehicle to arrive. The accused were dripping blood and police recovered an unlicensed .303 rifle, 10 live rounds of ammunition, two bloodied axes, and the freshly hacked off rhino horns in the vehicle. Ngema was in the back with the horns.

Early the next day, rangers recovered the carcass of a slain white rhino inside Imfolozi game reserve — minus its horns.

The accused’s bakkie has been confiscated and the Asset Forfeiture Unit is preparing to apply for its forfeiture.

Reyneke said Khoza and Buthelezi pointed out scenes linked to the crime to police.

Police are awaiting the results of DNA, ballistics and prima residue tests as well as cellphone records, which could link the accused to other poaching incidents.

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