Gert Saaiman and Frans van Deventer leave the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. Picture: Chris Collingridge

Charges have been dropped against one of four men accused of running a nationwide rhino-poaching syndicate.

George Fletcher, Gerhardus Saaiman, Frans van Deventer and Kumaran Moodaly appeared in the Pretoria High Court yesterday for their parts in the killing of at least 17 rhinos on game farms across South Africa between December 2005 and August 2006.

According to the State, it was Fletcher who headed the operation, paying out millions of rands through agents for rhino horns to be delivered to his Sandhurst Safaris farms in North West.

Saaiman was the alleged wingman, transporting horns and hunters between Fletcher and the farms in a small, twin-engine Aerostar plane. It was seized in Mayby the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), along with seven of Fletcher’s farms and a helicopter.

Van Deventer was allegedly the muscle behind the syndicate. Along with several other contracted hunters - including his brothers Deon and Nicolaasnow both turned State witnesses. Van Deventer allegedly entered farms and game reserves illegally, tracked down rhinos and shot them, usually with a crossbow and arrows. The horns were then removed and allegedly passed on to Saaiman before making their way into Fletcher’s hands.

Moodaly was thought to have acted as a runner, fetching the horns from Fletcher and transporting them to the coast for export.

But four years after police cracked the syndicate, the first day of trial got off to a sluggish start yesterday when all charges were withdrawn against Moodaly. The NPA refused to say why. The State then asked that the matter stand down for a day so that an application for a postponement could be drawn up.

“There are a few issues that need to be resolved,” said NPA spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga.

The alleged syndicate is believed to be responsible for the deaths of at least 17 rhinos countrywide, from the Kruger National Park to game farms in Bela Bela and Komatipoort.

The operation fell apart on August 23, 2006 when Deon and Nicolaas van Deventer were arrested leaving Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal. Four bloody horns were found in their car, fresh off the two bulls they had killed earlier that day.

Along with middleman Pieter Swart, they pleaded guilty and received suspended sentences when they turned State witnesses. The remaining men now face charges of racketeering, money laundering, theft, malicious damage to property and contravention of the Conservation Act and Aviation Act.