Joint operation tracks rhino syndicate suspects from Eastern Cape game reserve to Free State
Eastern Cape authorities have bust another rhino poaching syndicate after eight suspected poachers were nabbed during a dramatic 48-hour operation that saw the gang tracked to the Free State. The eight men, mostly foreign nationals, were arrested for allegedly conspiring to poach rhino on the Great Fish River Nature Reserve, between Grahamstown and Fort Beaufort, at the weekend.
According to authorities, the same gang could be responsible for wiping out an entire rhino population at the Wildschutsberg Game Reserve in the Stormberg mountains near Komani in October.
The bust comes after six of the alleged poachers managed to evade arrest earlier by hiding out in East London before fleeing to the Free State.
The joint sting operation involved tactical response teams, Department of Environmental Affairs investigators and stock theft unit detectives.
The breakthrough comes only a week after the same team won several awards for their dedication in fighting wildlife crime.
The arrest came after a tip-off about possible poachers being spotted driving on a dirt road bordering the reserve fence.
Park rangers, together with other authorities, were placed on high alert.
“Three of the suspects were dropped off at about 6pm on Saturday and managed to get into the reserve,” an official, who cannot be named due to the sensitive nature of the probe, said.
“The bakkie they were transported in was then pulled off the road.
“Shots had been fired during the chase and the bakkie came to a halt on the side of the road. The two men inside were arrested.
“While this was happening, the other three must have heard gunshots and abandoned their plans.
“By this stage, it was raining and attempts to track them through dense bush proved difficult.”
The reserve anti-poaching rangers had been deployed throughout the night but efforts to catch the suspects failed.
“As the investigation continued, another getaway car believed to be part of the gang was seen in the East London area.
“It is presumed that these were pick-up and transport bakkies to smuggle horns out of the Eastern Cape and eventually across the border.”
Officials then tracked down the two bakkies in which the suspects had fled East London.
Police spokeswoman Sibongile Soci said as a result of intelligence gathered throughout the night, officials tracked down and stopped another bakkie on Sunday afternoon in Ventersburg. “Six suspects were arrested inside the vehicle.” Soci said, in total, two bakkies had been seized together with an undisclosed amount of cash in rands and US dollars as well as five cellphones.
In the vehicles, police found a .458 hunting rifle, 12 rounds of ammunition, axes and knives as well as night vision goggles.
Asked about ties to the Wildschutsberg reserve poaching in October, in which five rhinos were killed over a three-week-period – all shot with a .458 hunting rifle – Soci said: “Investigations are ongoing to link suspects to other crime scenes in the Eastern Cape and Free State.”
According to insiders, ballistics from the October poaching show the same hunting rifle was used.
Wildschutsberg reserve owner Greg Harvey welcomed the arrests.
“We realise that these are not the only poachers but this should at least slow them down.
“This is brilliant investigative work and should be applauded. This weekend our Eastern Cape authorities managed to save several rhinos.
“We must never lose faith in the war against poaching – this shows we are on the right track.”
Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism MEC Sakhumzi Somyo said: “I am glad we got these guys before they could kill or damage our wildlife. This must be a warning to all would-be poachers. We will get you.”
All eight suspects will be charged for attempted rhino poaching at various courts before all charges will be consolidated in Alice in the Eastern Cape.