Game on: poaching ring gets 'shock' with big arrests
Hawks collar 'kingpins' of a major illicit animal trade ring hailed in a bid to disrupt poaching supply chain
It took two long years and careful planning, but attempts to “disrupt” the poaching supply chain and increase arrests have netted an investigations team two suspected poaching kingpins.
SANParks announced on Tuesday the arrest of two suspected leaders of a major illicit animal trade syndicate when the Hawks arrested the men in Benoni on Johannesburg’s East Rand.
The Hawks led the investigation in conjunction with SANParks’ Environment Investigative Unit. It is part of an approach to “disrupt” the poaching supply chain and increase arrests outside of parks where poaching takes place.
Mandla Mashele, 37, and Kelvin Malapane, 38, both from Benoni, appeared in the Benoni Magistrate's Court on May 30, just days after their arrest.
The men were charged with illegally buying four rhino horns, but could face further charges when they make a second court appearance on July 13. They were released on bail of R50,000 each.They are believed to be key figures in a supply chain of rhino horn from the Kruger National Park to international markets.
Rhino horns fetch an estimated R1. 5-million each on the black market.
The national section head for wildlife trafficking at the Hawks, Colonel Johan Jooste, said the two alleged kingpins were both “orchestrators” in terms of supplying rhino horn to Asia.
“We are looking towards the syndication and also rely on the information that’s forwarded to us,” Jooste told Times Select.
“In this situation we received information that there are certain people that are orchestrating the supply chain of rhino horn. So as soon as the rhino are killed the horns are supplied to certain ‘runners’ and then supplied to the end markets. In this situation these two individuals were allegedly responsible for that specific supply chain.”Jooste said further arrests were expected, and he could not provide more information because it could jeopardise the continuing investigation.
Making arrests outside of parks, where animals are held and traditionally poached for their horns, was crucial in fighting the illicit trade, said SANParks CEO Fundisile Nketeni.
He estimated that at least 20 rhino would be saved by the arrest of the suspected kingpins.
“We are well aware that the organising and planning [of poaching] is happening outside the park, and the demand for the horn is driven elsewhere,” he said.
“The fact that these syndicates were linked to poaching that happened in the Kruger National Park, but the arrests happened in Benoni, is very important because it means a shock to the [syndicate’s] system.”
More than 500 rhinos were killed for their horns in Kruger last year, and Fundisile said they hoped to reduce that number to under 400 by 2019 through efforts like this.“[These arrests] send a message to other syndicates that says that the [law] enforcement agencies of the country are following this and that there is co-operation between the environmental sector and the security cluster,” he said.
Jooste said the investigation was a huge learning curve, which allowed the Hawks to learn about the modus operandi syndicates used.
“The best practices that we’ve learnt is that these guys are very meticulous. They are disciplined and they also have their own counter-intelligence structures.
“We try to see how best we can disrupt it and learn the methodology so that we can align ourselves better in addressing more and more syndicates like this,” said Jooste.