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Some rhino owners are allegedly ordering the dehorning and, in certain instances, the killing of their own rhinos, selling the horns illegally, and then pretending to be the victims of poachers, or else concealing the incidents.
Hawks spokesman McIntosh Polela confirmed the crime fighting unit was aware of allegations of rhino owners targeting their own animals. At least three sources linked to the underworld told the Cape Times that these crimes were occurring around the country.
“We are not prepared to talk about these (allegations), since they are at their very early stages,” Polela said.
He declined to confirm if the Hawks were officially investigating cases and, if so, how many.
The three sources linked to the underworld – who declined to be named, as they feared they would be targeted if identified – independently said they knew of game farm and reserve owners who had targeted their own rhinos and then pretended to be victims of crime.
The sources said others were concealing what they had done.
One of the sources gave the names of at least five owners from around the country he alleged were involved in the rhino horn trade.
Two of the five owners on the list – Dawie Groenewald of Limpopo, who is at the centre of what police have labelled one of SA’s biggest rhino cases, and Hugo Ras, a hunter and former owner of Ras Safaris from Pretoria – are facing various charges in court.
The names of four vets were also provided, and the source said they illegally supplied the super-morphine drug M99 – a schedule 6 drug used to immobilise large animals which only registered vets could buy.
The source said rhino owners – who were either desperate to make money, or who realised selling the horns could be more lucrative than having to keep and maintain their rhinos – were involved in the black market trade.
He said one kilogram of rhino horn could fetch up to R1 million on the black market.
“The horns aren’t just smuggled. They’re sometimes ground into a powder and hidden in things like teddy bears,” the source said.
He said syndicates smuggled the horns mainly to China and Vietnam, countries also identified by Polela as ones for which horns were destined, and where it was believed rhino horns cured diseases such as cancer and acted as an aphrodisiac.
Gerhard Verdoorn, the SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association’s deputy president, said he had heard of game farmers orchestrating the dehorning of their own rhinos and then selling the horns illegally.
“But it’s very difficult to prove these things. Law enforcement agencies are not necessarily geared for this – these guys are cunning,” he said.
Verdoorn said about a month ago he had heard of a suspicious case in KwaZulu-Natal where a game farm owner did not want police to investigate the dehorning of one of his rhinos and had warned his staff members not to talk about the incident.
Environmental Affairs Department statistics released on Tuesday showed that 281 rhinos had been poached in SA this year, and 176 arrests had been made.
In a press statement two months ago, national police spokesman Vishnu Naidoo said the number of rhino-related cases showed the extent of the poaching problem.
He referred to the Groenewald rhino case in the statement, saying it was “one of the biggest wildlife cases in South Africa”.
This week Polela said Groenewald was one of about a dozen people arrested in the case and facing dozens of charges.
“The allegations are that he killed rhinos to illegally harvest their horns.”