By Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
South African police and security agencies seem to have struck their deepest blow so far against the country’s increasingly callous–and rampant–rhino poachers.
The Johannesburg newspaper Die Beeld reported Tuesday that two veterinarians are among the suspects. They are from a town named Modimolle, where they own an animal clinic and a wildlife organisation involved in catching and transporting game.
The South African newspaper the Star reported this morning that all suspects were released on bail yesterday and the case was postponed until April 11, 2012.
National Police spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo has been quoted in news reports as saying that the suspects may well be part of a rhino-poaching ring that has been responsible for “hundreds of rhino-poaching incidents”.
The apparent ring leader, game farmer Dawie Groenewald, was released on R1 million (US$142,000) bail. The two vets were released on R50,000 (US$7,000) and R20,000 (US$2,800).
According to the Star, more than 200 rhinos have been killed for their horns this year, up from a total of 122 in 2009.
Monday’s arrests come after five more rhinos were killed this past weekend in a nature reserve in South Africa’s North-West province, adjacent to Limpopo. As usual, the animals’ horns had been hacked off.
Naidoo said the arrests were a joint effort between the police’s elite Hawks unit, South African National Parks (SANParks), the National Prosecuting Authority and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Die Beeld reports the CAA was approached to join in the investigation after farmers in the two provinces had complained about helicopters with obscured registrations flying over game farms.
It was alleged that poachers were dropped on farms by helicopter and then picked up again once they had cut off the animals’ horns.
News of the arrests has overjoyed Faan Coetzee, head of the Rhino Security Project of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), which recently launched a hotline for people to call with information on rhino poaching.
An important step in the mounting campaign against the rhino killers and horn smugglers is expected next month when details will be announced of a combined Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit which will include the police, SANParks’ environmental protection services, state intelligence services, SA Revenue Services and customs, and rhino owners and wildlife organizations.
It will be the culmination of months of planning and negotiations to set up an organisation that could stand up to the syndicates that are using increasingly sophisticated methods to kill their prey and get their horns to their Eastern markets.
Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.