Six key syndicate members implicated in a massive trafficking of poached rhino horns were arrested in a number of areas in Mpumalanga yesterday.
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.
During the swoop members found and confiscated luxury vehicles and motorbikes, trucks, an undisclosed amount of money, animal skins, properties, lots of suspected stolen items which include amongst others; trailers, generators and various electronic equipment. The seized items are estimated to exceed millions of rand in value.
The suspects aged between 30 and 56, include two alleged syndicate leaders, one right hand man, two police officers and a former cop.
They are expected to appear at the White River Magistrate’s Court this afternoon, facing charges of theft, conspiracy to commit a crime, illegal buying and selling of rhino horns, corruption and money laundering.
The expeditious internal disciplinary processes are already underway for the arrested police officers.
The significant breakthrough follows an investigative – Project Broadbill – by the Wildlife Trafficking Section of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation which commenced in January last year.
The project focused on the criminal supply chain of poached rhinos within the Kruger National Park, Kwazulu Natal, Gauteng and other private or state owned reserves. The syndicate members allegedly ran poaching groups with the support of corrupt police officials as well as authorities from the private game farms.
The areas in control of the alleged syndicate includes, 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, where after it gets distributed to the South East Asian markets.
Meanwhile, the National Head of the DPCI Lieutenant General Godfrey Lebeya has lauded the collaborative action as a huge success in the fight against rhino poaching in the country.
“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 governments departments in carrying out crucial investigations and arresting those behind the slaughter of our wild life,” said Lieutenant General Lebeya.
The operation is still proceeding today, more seizures and possible arrests are expected.