Sable antelope are endangered and sought-after because of their thick horns. File picture: Karen Sandison

Johannesburg - South African intelligence is reeling following the capture of six South Africans by Zambian authorities who have been running a wildlife smuggling ring between the two countries by managing to fly light aircraft under the radar undetected for more than two years.

The critical question being asked is, how did South African authorities not know that planes were flying in and out of the country undetected over such a long period?

The South Africans were caught red-handed on October 9 on an airstrip in Kota Kota, near Lake Kariba, attempting to smuggle 12 sable antelope onto a light aircraft destined for a South African game reserve, thought to be Pilanesberg, and a reserve near Botswana.

Josias Mungabwa of the Zambian Wildlife Authority Intelligence Unit told Independent Media: “Zambian sable antelope are estimated to be worth approximately US$1.9 million each.

“They are endangered and sought after for their thick horns, which can grow up to 80cm.

“This was not the first time that the plane had flown under the radar without a tracker between South Africa and Zambia,” he added.

“There have been reports of a low-flying plane coming into Zambia for 2-3 years now from our guys, as well as local villagers. It was just difficult to trace as we didn’t know when the next flight would be.”

It was the tip-off to Zambian authorities by Massimo Selicato, who owns the 7 000-hectare farm in Kota Kota from which the smugglers were operating, that enabled Zambia security forces to stage Operation Bush Pilot to catch them.

Selicato was initially unaware of the real intentions of the South Africans, as they had claimed to be in the country to make a documentary on the last lioness of the Liuwa Plains National Park.

He had even lent them a fishing boat which they had then used to get close to the farm’s airstrip.

Mungabwa told Independent Media there was the definite possibility other light aircraft could be flying below the radar between South Africa and other southern African states, smuggling rhino horn and even drugs.

Given the fact that rhino horn is often poached from the Kruger National Park using helicopters or small aircraft that complete their operation within minutes, it then opens up the possibility that the poachers fly directly out of South Africa under the radar.

The men being held by Zambian authorities are Torrie Potgieter, JD Potgieter, Francois Petrus Grobler, Peter Schalk Grobler, Damin Leroux and Pieter Burger.

Mungabwa says they have been charged with unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition, being in the unlawful possession of trophies, and for violating Zambian airspace by flying under the radar.

Mungabwa was unsure of the sentence for the violation of Zambian airspace – the more serious charge – but said the illegal possession of sable antelope, considered a “trophy”, was 7-15 years in prison with no option of a fine.

“When the South Africans were caught at 3.30am, they were off-loading the 12 sable antelope calves from a truck and preparing to put them into a Piper Navajo Chieftain aircraft. The interior of the aircraft had already been modified with the 12-14 passenger seats removed and the floor of the plane lined with mattresses and cushions.”

The pilot, Torrie Potgieter, had not filed flight plans, but according to South African Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Kabelo Ledwaba, pilots are always required to do so. South African and Zambian authorities are collaborating on the probe. According to Mungabwa, the plane came in the night from the Swanvest company in Kimberley, owned by Chris Visser.

This is not the first time South Africans have been caught smuggling sable antelope. Four South Africans were caught last month, allegedly smuggling 29 sable into South Africa from Zimbabwe, to be shot by hunters.

Given the increased sophistication of game smuggling syndicates in southern Africa, the region’s authorities have their work cut out for them, especially all the wildlife intelligence units.

Foreign Bureau

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