Chinese national found in possession of rhino horn and chucked abalone was arrested at the Cape Town International Airport. File Photo: Chris Collingridge

Assets worth about R55 million have been seized from an alleged rhino poaching kingpin and two vets alleged to be his accomplices in an 11-person syndicate, the members of which are currently facing more than 1 800 charges.

This was announced by the National Joint Operation Centre in Pretoria on Wednesday, which also revealed that the Hawks’ endangered species unit has so far secured rhino poaching convictions against 10 accused with a combined sentence of 111 years in jail.

In a statement, the centre said that since January this year, 99 people had been arrested for rhino-related matters countrywide. There were 57 cases currently before court involving 161 accused, of whom 65 were in custody and 96 were out on bail.

But despite the successes of the joint security forces – including the endangered species unit, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) and the Department of Environmental Affairs – the rhino death toll is continuing to climb.

By Monday, it had reached at least 210 – up from 199 just a week before. Eight of those new deaths were in the poaching hotspot of the Kruger National Park, two were in Limpopo and one was in North West Province.

According to these figures, released by the Department of Environmental Affairs, there have been 128 arrests so far this year.

Also this week, it was revealed that of the 384 foreigners who hunted rhinos in SA in the past two years, 221 were from Vietnam. Vietnam and China are acknowledged as the major markets for rhino horn.

Police have been told how Vietnamese prostitutes and strippers have been used as “pseudo hunters” to get around SA’s restrictions on rhino hunting permits.

DA environment spokesman Gareth Morgan had asked Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa how many foreign nationals had hunted rhino in SA since July 1, 2009, and where they were from.

In her reply, Molewa – who has temporarily banned Vietnamese rhino hunters pending an inquiry by authorities there as to whether claimed rhino “trophies” are still in existence – revealed that most other hunters were from the US (43), Czech Republic (34) and Russia (19). There were 10 from China and three from Laos. No rhinos were legally hunted in the Western Cape or Gauteng during this period.

In its statement, the National Joint Operation Centre said the joint anti-poaching team had seized assets from alleged rhino poaching kingpin Dawie Groenewald and two vets, Dr Karel Toet and Dr Manie du Plessis, who were arrested in 2010.

In September 2010, the three men and eight other accused including hunters, a helicopter pilot and safari operators, were officially charged with 1 872 counts of racketeering, making it one of SA’s biggest wildlife cases.

The case has been postponed to October 19.

“While this matter is still pending in court, the provisions of the Proceeds of Crime Act allows the Asset Forfeiture Unit to seize and preserve the assets of an accused until the case is finalised. On conviction, the seizure is realised and these proceeds are then used to continue with the combating of crime,” the Joint Operation Centre statement explained. - Cape Argus