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Rhino syndicate hit hard

Rhinos
A victim of poaching, as published in Africa Geographic September 2008. Photo: SAPS

By all accounts, rhinoceros poaching in southern Africa has reached alarming levels. During this past weekend alone, four rhinos were poached in South Africa, one being shot from a helicopter registered with false license plates. A total of 220 were killed for their horns in 2009 and, after this weekend’s slaughter, the 2010 tally is approaching 80. For anyone looking at trends, this year’s figure is already higher than the totals for 2005, 2006 and 2007 combined, when fewer than 70 animals were killed.

But there has also been some good news: the syndicate comprising a group of professional hunters that were featured in my article ‘The Tip of the Horn’ (Africa Geographic September 2008) has been hit hard by the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU). Under the Prevention of Organised Crime Act, the North Gauteng High Court recently granted the AFU a restraint order entitling them to seize R45-million of assets from the accused.

Clayton Fletcher, Gert Saaiman and Andries van Deventer, the hunters, and Kumaran Moodaley, the person fingered as the ‘mule’ in the syndicate, are still regarded by police as the major players. Since the article, five other respondents have been added to the charge sheet, and all are set to go on trial suspected of operating a large-scale illegal rhino hunting and horn smuggling ring. The accused will also face a variety of other charges, including racketeering, money laundering, theft and contraventions of various conservation and aviation acts.

Assets seized include all residential properties and numerous farms, including seven outside Tosca in the North West Province that comprise Sandhurst Safaris. The Fletchers and Sandhurst have over the years become associated with the breeding and trading in large predators as well as canned hunting. A helicopter and light aircraft, apparently used in the operations, and various other business interests of the accused also fall under the order.

This is a significant victory in the fight against organised crime, and those involved – various provincial branches of South African Police Service, the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and the AFU – need to be congratulated on their successes and the excellent police work that has gone into fighting this group. The next step is for them to get a successful conviction at the criminal trial that is set for mid October 2010.

But back to the situation on the ground – the present rate of killing represents a serious threat to the future of the region’s rhino populations. This is not only because of the numbers killed, but also the manner in which the syndicates are operating: extremely efficiently and effectively. While it is encouraging that the South African authorities have responded by setting up a new specialised team, the National Wildlife Reaction Unit, to tackle the problem, I believe it is going to require more than this. It is my suspicion that there are insiders at work here and that all involved in dealing with rhino at whatever level need to start carefully reviewing their staff. These syndicates have influential people assisting them who may include rangers, senior managers and private veterinarians.

Read ‘The Tip of the Horn’ as published in Africa Geographic, September 2008: Tip_of_the_Horn.pdf

Ndumu River Lodge
Ian Michler

Ian has spent the last 24 years working as a specialist guide, photo-journalist and consultant across Africa, including a stint of 13 years based in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. When not guiding, he writes predominately for Africa Geographic covering topics on conservation, wildlife management, ecotourism, and the environment, and has been writing his popular monthly column since 2001. Ian is also the author and photographer of seven natural history and travel books on Africa, and is a past winner of the bird category in the Agfa Wildlife photographic competition (1997). He has also worked as a researcher and field coordinator on various natural history television documentaries for international broadcasters and as a consultant on ecotourism to various private sector and government agencies. Prior to his life in the wilderness, he spent eight years practicing as a stockbroker in Cape Town and Johannesburg.