The first six months of 2018 has seen more than 360 suspected rhino poachers arrested as law enforcement agencies assisted by SANParks rangers, soldiers and police continue the hunt for those illegally taking South Africa’s natural heritage.
The arrests are the culmination of investigations by the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure’s Operation Rhino 9 Task Team responsible for prevention, combatting and investigating the crime.
An additional 15 suspects, aged between 33 and 50, were arrested last week during intelligence-driven operations in Mpumalanga. Four unlicensed firearms and ammunition were seized during the arrests, national police spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo told SAnews.
“Between January and June this year, the Rhino 9 Task Team secured convictions, the maximum nine years’ imprisonment and the least three months’ imprisonment with the option of a R1500 fine,” Naidoo said.
Of the 365 suspects arrested, 165 rare still in custody while court processes unfold. Six arrested suspects were deported to their countries of origin while 11 received fines and another 57 are serving jail terms.
“The convictions are evidence of the commitment of law enforcement agencies and game reserves and national parks to preserve species for future generations,” Naidoo said.
“The arrested suspects appeared in various courts across the country on charges of unlawful possession of firearm/s, unlawful possession of ammunition, possession of dangerous weapon/s, trespassing, hunting of protected animals, kidnapping, assault, possession of the remains of a wild animal, possession of suspected stolen property and being in the country illegally or without proper documentation.”
An assortment of incriminating evidence, including cell-phones and axes, was seized during the arrests.
The Rhino 9 Task Team is a multi-disciplinary team operating in Mpumalanga and comprises various government departments including the police, customs and excise, the SA National Defence Force, as well as Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and SANParks game rangers.
“The strategies put on place in the fight against rhino poaching are reducing the chances of smugglers operating in our national parks. These arrests should serve as a warning and deterrent to other potential poachers,” Naidoo said.
“Community support and assistance is welcomed in the fight against this scourge. Poachers and smugglers are warned that over and above facing criminal prosecution, their ill-gotten gains will also be confiscated in terms of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act 121/1998 (POCA).”
There has not been an official update from the Department of Environmental Affairs on the number of rhino poached to date this year either nationally or provincially but a private conservation NGO has tallied available information. This indicates that by the end of April the national rhino herd was diminished by about 250 animals. Official statistics have it that poachers shot and killed 1 028 rhino in 2017.