Simon’s rhino horn swindle

2011-10-15 15:32

Simon* pokes gingerly at the contents of the sweating refuse bag. A cloud of fat flies – disturbed from their feast – buzz angrily in the air.

His hands are double-bagged in plastic shopping packets. The maggots and heat have done their work.

Whatever is in there no longer has any discernible form. It was probably a dog, he laughs, screwing up his nose.

He scoops out a handful of rot and smears it on the “rhino horn” propped up against a tree. Later he will bury it and wait for a buyer.

Simon is a two-bit conman and smuggler. He’ll try anything as long as there is cash to be made.

These days, cigarettes are his thing – boxes and boxes of them bought on the cheap in Zimbabwe and trafficked across the Limpopo River into South Africa.

He sells them in Pretoria, charging up to three times what he paid for them in Zimbabwe, less expenses doled out to couriers and, most importantly, to the transporters and their souped-up cars.

It is a risky enterprise made more so by currents, crocodiles, wild animals and the “guma-gumas”, the thugs who lurk in the no-man’s-land between the two countries.

They exact heavy tolls for safe passage on those unlucky enough to stray into their paths. Often they rape, rob and kill.

Nobody knows how many corpses are out there in the bush or how many human bones are scattered among the baobabs and fever trees.

For those who make the river crossing and survive the guma-gumas, the security fence – a 260km jagged steel scar that stretches from Pont Drift, Limpopo, to the northern Kruger Park border with Zimbabwe – poses little hindrance.

Along its length, barbed silver entrails spill inwards and outwards where the fence line has been slashed, cut, trampled, burrowed under and prised apart.

Coke cans, Sprite bottles and vivid strips of cloth – left behind by smugglers and traffickers – serve as markers for a myriad routes.

Simon spends much of his time in the bush escorting his shipments of tobacco. Armed men, known as impis, accompany the couriers lugging boxes packed in duffel bags over their shoulders.

‘I’m hardcore’
If there is blood to be spilt, it won’t be Simon’s. He has his “guys” and they pack heat.

“Me, I can’t be killed, bra,” he says. “I’m hardcore. Killing is another story. You can come and kill me, but you can be killed yourself.”

He is contemptuous of law enforcement. “You can bribe anyone and everybody, as long as there is money.

Money talks. As long as I’m sorted here in South Africa, I don’t f****n’ care.”

He boasts that he has cops and ambulance drivers on his payroll to smuggle cigarettes. “Musina is f****d up, man. I’ve been using a police van and an ambulance here for smuggling. You pay the driver and then he goes off with the cargo – wee, wee, wee, wee!”

Those who want to make money in Musina’s Nancefield township do cigarettes, gold or diamonds, or traffic people. There’s the guy in the black Hummer. He’s a player; a dangerous one they say. There are the men with Audi A4s and BMWs.

But Simon likes to think he is different. He has another sideline, the one few people know about. The one he believes is truly ingenious.

But to do it, he needs supplies and for that he has to go to Musina.

It is an ugly place, tacky and cheap: a rough-and-ready frontier town that many laughingly call the “Wild West”. There’s countless cut-price dealers, informal traders and spaza shops that boomed as a result of Zimbabwe’s economic and political meltdown.

At Al-Noor Motor Spares and Copperpot Body Parts, Simon reels off his list: Bodyfilla, Q-Bond, Super Glue, Gum Gum exhaust paste and sandpaper. It comes to R270 and change.

Back in Nancefield, he stops at a rundown shack on the edge of the township. A battered blue bakkie with rusted axles and no tyres is parked outside. A fresh skin taken from the head of a cow lies drying in the sun next to a skull on a discarded grey foam mattress.

He hikes up a hill to his “private place”. First, he makes a frame out of wire coat-hangers. He inserts a 500ml plastic bottle filled with water and sand into the wire. He soaks a sheet of cardboard in water, tears it into strips and mashes it up before cramming it into the frame.

He adds the tip of a cow horn to the point of the “item”. Once that is done, he coats on Bodyfilla, waits for it to dry and begins sanding. Then he smears on black layers of Gum Gum. When it dries, which it does rapidly in the sun, it will turn grey.

The final touches include a band of hair and pieces of cow bone, which he breaks up with a rock and pastes to the base with glue.

The process takes five hours.

He holds up the finished product, proclaiming with a laugh: “I’m saving the rhinos. People want rhino horn. I make them rhino horn.”

Simon’s speciality is “knocking” other criminals. He turns the cliche of honour among thieves on its head and preys on their greed.

By the time they realise they have been duped, Simon has vanished with their money.

“I charge a lot of bucks,” he says. “It depends on how badly they want it. The last one I sold for R15?000, another for R25?000. They like rhino horns, so now I make them so they can get them faster.

“The cops can’t arrest me for doing this because I’m trying to prevent animals from being killed.”

The real Thing

His claim doesn’t ring true and later he admits that he too has trafficked the “real thing” – horn taken from rhinos poached across the border in southern Zimbabwe.

Once, he says, he “knocked” two local poachers when they asked him to act as a middleman in the sale of a rhino horn. He took the horn, cut a deal with the buyer and gave the poachers a fake, claiming that the buyer had lost interest . They quickly discovered his treachery.

Why didn’t they kill him? “They’re scared of me. If they want to play with guns, they must come?.?.?.”

In daylight, his horns wouldn’t easily pass muster. But Simon has other tricks up his sleeve.

He takes the horn to a dumpsite littered with cow bones, rotting animal parts and bags of refuse. There he scrounges for a dead dog and rubs the rotten flesh on the horn before burying it in plastic bag.

“The temperature in the bag keeps it rotting and smelling like sh*t.”

Only when he gets a buyer will he dig it up again.

Meeting the mark

It is always dark when he meets the “mark” near the taxi rank on the N1 as it passes through Musina. They never know his real identity and the deals are arranged by intermediaries. The last one he “knocked” was a Nigerian. Before that a “rich” businessman from Nelspruit.

There are always police around when the meeting takes place. Simon pays no heed to them. Their presence aids the “knock”.

He bides his time, watching the mark’s car. Inside, he knows that with each passing cop van, the buyer becomes increasingly edgy.

The deal is done quickly. Simon slides into the car. The buyer asks to inspect the horn and Simon opens the bag. The stench in the confined space is overpowering.

“Eish, when they open that bag, they don’t want to check it too long. They just want to get out of there, away from the smell and the cops. They can see it’s a horn, so they say ‘fine, fine, fine’ and hand over the bucks. Then I’m gone.”

Sometimes, Simon arranges for one of his cop friends to trail the buyer and arrest him. He’s thrown in jail, the horn is returned to Simon and the cop gets his cut.

“Sometimes, after they have been arrested and released, they come back for more. They think because they were arrested, they got the real thing. It’s all just game, bra?.?.?.”

* Name has been changed

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