Durban - A complicated sting resulted in the arrest of a 45-year-old man said to be the kingpin of rhino horn poaching in KwaZulu-Natal this week.

His wife, 28, and his second-in-command were arrested in a separate swoop in Hluhluwe.

Barend Lottering of Nyathi Anti-Poaching Unit said the swoop was the culmination of an eight-month intelligence-driven operation. “We infiltrated his inner-circle using our informer network and set up a reverse sting.”

A reverse sting is when police agents sell illicit goods to criminals as opposed to a conventional sting where officers pose as buyers.

Crime intelligence officers from Pretoria had made contact with the kingpin and handed over five horns on separate occasions to gain his trust and work their way into his network. The horns were supplied by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

The man paid agents half the value of the horn and then sold them in Maputo or Joburg. With the horns valued at about R150 000/kg, and most horns in the 4kg to 6kg range, he stood to gain hundreds of thousands of rand.

On Thursday, the crime intelligence agent handed over a 5kg horn and received residual money from the last sale.

At that point a Special Task Team member jumped out of the boot of the agent’s car. The kingpin attempted to disarm him, and, after a struggle he got into his car and attempted to run over the officer. Back-up arrived and the man was arrested. He was also shot. He is in a stable condition in hospital.

Lottering warned that while it appeared they had a water-tight case against the man because he had been caught in possession of a rhino horn, he had already evaded prosecution on several occoasions.

“This man is the leader of KZN’s biggest rhino-poaching syndicate and about 80 percent of the horns in the province go through his hands.

“He is brutal and rules by the gun. He is often the middleman between the poachers and buyers, but he also organises poachers in Mozambique and locally and provides them with weapons.

“There have been several cases against him before but they have either been withdrawn or the dockets have gone missing. We just hope that this time the charges stick.”

While the man claims he is unemployed, the Asset Forfeiture Unit seized six luxury vehicles from his premises including a BMW X5 and a 3-series, a Mercedes Kompressor, a Toyota Land Cruiser and a Prada. The vehicles are valued at a total of R3 million.

According to sources who walked through the man’s house, 3km outside Manguzi in Northern Zululand, evidence of ready cash was everywhere. “He has a 10-roomed house. The place is full of flat-screen TVs, laptops, fridges and leather couches, most still in boxes or in their wrapping. The house is so full it’s hard to move. The guy does not have a kettle, he has an urn going all day,” said the source.

Simon Naylor, KZN representative of the Private Rhino Owners Association and conservation manager at Phinda Game Reserve, commended all the role players involved in the operation.

“This operation shows that different agencies, in this case the Special Task Force, the Asset Forfeiture Unit, Crime Intelligence National, Nyathi Anti-poaching Unit and Ezemvelo, working together, can lead to major successes.

“The Special Task Force and Durban Organised Crime Unit guys are extremely committed. They worked straight through the night on this operation, and the support from them has been phenomenal.”

He added that this sent a clear message to poaching syndicate bosses that their assets would be attached.

“Hopefully, the proceeds generated from the sale will be put back into the fight against poaching, and those arrested will be denied bail. This year alone, more than 1 100 rhinos have been killed in the country, with almost 100 of those being in KZN. But this operation is a major coup and will massively disrupt syndicates.”

SAPS spokesman Major Thulani Zwane said: “On Thursday, at about 2pm, an operation was conducted in Manguzi by Durban Organised Crime assisted by the task force.

“Three suspects between 45 and 50 years old were arrested. One of the suspects was shot and wounded while attempting to disarm a task force member’s gun.

“Dockets of conspiracy to deal in rhino horn, dealing in rhino horn, attempted murder, and resisting arrest were opened. Six vehicles were seized as they were suspected to be from the proceeds of crime.”

Two suspects appeared on Friday in the Ingwavuma Magistrate’s Court.

Sunday Tribune