Held for rhino poaching 3 times. Reoffended 3 times. What's up?
Outrage that alleged poacher's legal process has been going on for nine years - and his isn't an isolated case
Nearly 50 farmers and an angry rhino have helped police capture an alleged rhino poacher who has now been arrested three times.
On August 26 2009, Muntugokwakhe Khoza was arrested at a roadblock, allegedly in possession of two horns that had just been hacked off a rhino in KwaZulu-Natal’s flagship Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve.
Four years later, on March 15 2013 – while out on bail for the first case – Khoza was arrested at another roadblock near Vryheid in possession of two more freshly-hunted rhino horns.
He was convicted and sentenced to six years in jail for illegal rhino horn possession for the Vryheid case and, after serving part of this sentence, he was allowed to remain out on bail while standing trial for the 2009 matter in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi.
Last month a warrant of arrest was issued after he skipped bail and failed to appear in the Richards Bay Magistrate's Court for the resumption of this nine-year-long trial.
Last week, however, Khoza was arrested a third time while allegedly trying to poach rhinos at the private Basangoma Game Ranch, near Paulpietersburg.
This has been confirmed by police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo.
Khoza was due to appear in the Richards Bay Regional Court on Wednesday, but his attorney told the court he was unwell.
Natasha Ramkisson, the National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson, said the State then requested that Khoza be examined by a District Surgeon.
“The District Surgeon advised that the accused is not fit to come to court [currently]," she said.
The trial has been adjourned to December 19, with Khoza in custody for now.
Basangoma owner Carlo Engelbrecht told Times Select that a dehorned, pregnant rhino was shot and killed on the reserve about three weeks ago. But the poachers fled without trying to remove the remnant horn stumps.
Engelbrecht said all the rhinos on the reserve had been dehorned to reduce the risk of poaching, but that did not appear to deter a gang of five men and their female getaway driver from trying to poach more rhinos in a second incident at Basangoma on September 11.
He said the ranch had also resorted to putting out food for the rhinos next to the game guards’ camp so a close watch could be kept on them at night.
Engelbrecht said he believed the poachers were waiting on a nearby hill watching to see when the guards switched the lights off.
Shortly before midnight they crept down from the hill and attempted to shoo the rhinos away from the vicinity of the guard camp. But one of the animals – a cow defending its young calf – charged at the poachers, who then opened fire.
Two rhinos were wounded, and the poachers took refuge in a riverbed.
However, a group of farmers equipped with night-vision equipment spotted the poachers in hiding. Local police and nearly 50 local farm-watch neighbours were quickly alerted to draw a security net around the reserve.
Five suspects – including Khoza – were arrested subsequently, along with a female accomplice hired to drive the getaway car.
Police also seized three rifles, some allegedly stolen during a farm attack in the Ermelo area.
Naidoo said the six people – Khoza, Ntokozo Biyela, Sabelo Sibisi, Sakhile Ntuli, Thulani Mbatha and Thembile Ntuli – appeared in the Paulpietersburg Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.
This time, Khoza has been remanded in custody.
Coinciding with World Rhino Day on Saturday, the latest arrests come at a time when the Environment Ministry has come under attack by conservation groups for failing to release any rhino poaching statistics for 2018.
Since 2013, more than 1,000 rhinos have been killed nationwide each year, for five consecutive years.
In KZN, horn poachers killed 222 rhinos last year – the highest on record since the start of the rhino poaching spree that began in 2008.
In an open letter sent to Molewa, Save the Rhino, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and several other conservation groups said no poaching statistics had been released for this year, despite previous pledges to publish quarterly reports and hold regular briefings.
“These briefings play an invaluable role as questions may be posed to the minister and other government department officials on aspects that may need further clarification.”
The group said explanations were also needed on the reasons why several rhino poaching trials had been delayed or postponed for unacceptably long periods of time. The Khoza case – still unfinished after nine years – was just one example.
“These delays are wasting the time of prosecutors, magistrates and judges, witnesses, as well as taxpayers’ money,” they said.