A series of mysterious events – including a robbery at a foreign royal’s game farm and a Hawks officer smelling rotten meat inside a locked cabinet – has led to the discovery of four rhino horns at the King Edward Hotel in Central.
Hawks spokeswoman Captain Anelisa Feni confirmed this week that an inquiry had been opened after the horns were found locked in a cabinet in an office at the hotel during a pre-dawn raid on Friday last week.
The iconic hotel, belonging to controversial United Arab Emirates-based Sheik Khalaf Al Otaiba, was raided by the Hawks following a tip-off that alleged illegal horns were being stashed there.
A day before the raid, a case of housebreaking and theft was opened at the Wolwefontein police station following an armed robbery at Al Otaiba’s Blaauwbosch Private Game Reserve between Uitenhage and Steytlerville, in which two rhino horns were reported stolen.
While the incident involved a gang of armed robbers, for some reason the case was registered as housebreaking and theft.
Police were investigating the robbery when they were tipped off about further horns being stashed at the hotel.
The sheik’s Port Elizabethbased lawyer, Kuban Chetty, said his client had been informed that the four horns had been confiscated by the police and that a charge of illegal possession of rhino horn was being investigated.
Chetty said the two horns stolen from the farm on Thursday last week had been removed from a rhino that had died of natural causes earlier this year.
He said those horns were still missing and investigations were ongoing.
Meanwhile, members of the Hawks, the SA Police Service’s explosives unit and the K9 unit raided the hotel after obtaining a search warrant.
A source close to the investigation said the officers had been in the hotel manager’s office when the organised crime unit’s Warrant-Officer Leon Eksteen said he could smell rotten meat inside a locked filing cabinet.
The police sniffer dog also lingered around the cabinet.
Asked to open the cabinet, managing staff claimed that the only key was with the sheik, who was currently abroad.
The lock on the cabinet was then broken open and four rhino horns were found inside.
“The Hawks found the horns without the necessary permits,” Feni said. No arrests have been made. “The investigation is now under the SAPS stock theft unit in Jeffreys Bay,” Feni said.
Chetty said they planned to meet the Eastern Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism this week to get the horns registered and returned to Al Otaiba.
“His Excellency [Al Otaiba] can confirm that the key for the cabinet was with him overseas.
“All horns had been removed from deceased rhino belonging to His Excellency,” Chetty said.
The sheik owns Blaauwbosch as well as Thaba Manzi Game Farm near Humansdorp.
Chetty said following security fears, the four horns had been moved to the King Edward Hotel for safekeeping.
Four armed robbers stormed Blaauwbosch last Thursday, stealing two remaining horns.
Al Otaiba grabbed headlines in April when the provincial environment department ordered the shooting of an elephant that kept escaping from Blaauwbosch.
The Herald also reported in June that Al Otaiba had been accused of failing to pay bills of more than R1-million for renovation work at the King Edward Hotel.
Port Elizabeth attorney Lunen Meyer said he had pursued the matter for three years on behalf of builder Greg Webster, but had been unable to locate Al Otaiba to serve a notice of demand.
This followed claims by helicopter pilot John Huddlestone that the sheik had failed to pay a bill of R5 600 for a chartered flight over Blaauwbosch.
Huddlestone had responded to a report in May about R155 000 still owed to Jaco Meyer, the former manager of Thaba Manzi, following a February 27 unfair dismissal ruling against him.
However, the sheik’s spokesman, Ahmed Elgarib, denied the allegations of non-payment to Webster and Huddlestone, saying the claims were the result of “people acting against foreign investors in [South Africa]”.