Some reward for the sweat equity put in by rangers and soldiers during long and arduous hours of work in the bush tracking and apprehending rhino poachers has come from the Nelspruit Regional Court.
Leonard Mhlongo was found guilty on two counts of poaching and one of trespass in the Kruger National Park. He was sentenced to 10 years for poaching an adult black rhino and eight years for poaching a juvenile black rhino. These sentences will run concurrently and along with a four year term for trespassing means he will spend 14 years behind bars.
The trial and sentencing follows Mhlongo’s apprehension along with an accomplice in the Tshokwane section of Kruger in January. His co-accused absconded after being granted bail in February and indications are he crossed the border back to Mozambique.
Officer Commanding Special Projects in Kruger, Major General (ret) Johan Jooste welcomed the conviction and sentencing.
“On behalf of our men and women on the ground, we all congratulate the prosecuting team led by Isbet Erwee, the investigators who worked tirelessly to close any loopholes, and the court for the stiff sentence handed down. Congratulations are also due to my team for their part in arresting these criminals and preserving the crime scene.
“The battle (against rhino poaching) is going to be won from the outside as well as by those working inside Kruger and developments such as this stiff sentence can only be welcomed,” he said.
Jooste was also cautiously optimistic about closing the escape door provided for poachers by the Mozambican border.
“The recent visit of Environment Affairs Minister Edna Molewa to Mozambique has contributed to a good working relationship taking shape and this will hopefully assist in further turning the tide against poachers and their handlers.”
Jooste and his anti-poaching brains trust in Kruger have presented a pursuit strategy to SANParks management. If accepted at Ministerial level this will see rangers, soldiers and other government agencies involved in Operation Rhino allowed to track and follow poaching suspects across the border.
Dubbed Operation Hot Pursuit, it is seen as a way of conducting law enforcement without having to be concerned about the possibility of creating international incidents where shooting at suspected poachers across a border could possibly be construed as an act of war.
Poachers have so far this year killed 553 rhino with Kruger bearing the brunt of the slaughter. Three hundred and forty-five have been killed in the park, only 80 less than were shot by poachers there the whole of last year.