THE Hawks have arrested three police officers for alleged rhino poaching after a three-year investigation into a group suspected of being the ringleaders of an illegal rhino horn trade syndicate.
The three police officers were among 12 people arrested this week in connection with rhino poaching in a joint investigation, Operation Ringleader.
The 12 were described as a “high-flying group” who had been under investigation since 2013 for their alleged involvement in the illegal rhino horn trade in Johannesburg, Klerksdorp, Rustenburg and Pretoria.
The Hawks also seized 13 illegal firearms – eight rifles and five pistols – R1.1 million in cash, eight luxury vehicles, four complete rhino horns and several cut-up sections of rhino horn, an electric hacksaw and three scales.
The haul is estimated to be worth R6m.
The suspects were arrested in Gauteng and North West and have been charged with money laundering and racketeering, corruption and possession of unlicenced firearms and ammunition.
Operation Ringleader was a joint operation with Crime Intelligence, the Department of Environmental Affairs, the SAPS Forensic Science Laboratory and the National Prosecuting Authority.
Hawks head Lieutenant General Mthandazo Ntlemeza warned poachers the organisation would “leave no stone unturned” in the fight against rhino poaching.
“The broom is still sweeping. This operation is continuing until all syndicates are wiped out,” Ntlemeza said.
As poaching syndicates wiped out rhino populations elsewhere in South African, they targeted South Africa, home to most of the world’s surviving rhino.
In 2007 just 13 rhino were killed, which increased rapidly every year. Last year 1 215 were killed, mostly in Kruger, and by August this year 749 had been killed.
Environment Minister Edna Molewa welcomed the arrests yesterday, saying they were indicative of the government’s commitment to fighting the scourge of rhino poaching in South Africa.
“Government acknowledges that environmental crime – and poaching in particular – does more than threaten South Africa’s natural resources. It also results in a financial burden and loss of economic and development opportunities in our country,” Molewa said.
Rhino poaching was declared a national priority crime in South Africa which was tackled through the country’s national security structure.
And yesterday the North Gauteng High Court lifted the ban on domestic trade in rhino horn.
The judgment came after two rhino farmers took legal action to have the moratorium overturned. The court found that the government had not followed the correct process when it implemented the moratorium in 2009.
However, the court ruling does not mean domestic trade in rhino horn can now go ahead as Molewa intends to lodge an appeal against the judgement. Molewa said yesterday the appeal application would suspend the judgment from being put into effect, meaning no trade could go ahead until the appeal hearing had been finalised.