Rhino horns worth R17.3 million, some buried in a garden – that’s what police stumbled upon during a sting operation in Centurion, near Pretoria.
They arrived at a secure complex where they first found a car with a hidden compartment used for horns, microchip scanners, a bandsaw and hi-tech scales.
Two horns were in the car.
The following day, an eagle-eyed policeman noticed that soil in the garden had been disturbed, and six rhino horns wrapped in clingfilm were unearthed.
One of the horns was so fresh, it was later found to have been hacked from a rhino just a few days earlier.
The details of Operation Whisper, which bust the rhino-poaching syndicate, were revealed in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on Friday.
Colonel Gerhard Vermeulen of the SAPS Forensic Science Laboratory told how he had arrived at the crime scene to find two rhino horns in a car.
They had been stashed in a hidden compartment, between the rear seat and the boot.
“If you had opened the boot you wouldn’t have been able to see it,” said Vermeulen.
In the dock was Vietnamese citizen Gulit Chu Duc, 23, who was arrested on May 31 last year at the Centurion complex.
He has pleaded guilty to two charges related to the transportation and possession of rhino horns.
His arrest was the culmination of Operation Whisper, during which undercover SAPS members had sold two rhino horns in KwaZulu-Natal and then followed the contraband to Gauteng.
In a statement, Chu Duc said he had picked up a parcel from a person in Bruma, Joburg, and placed the parcel in his car.
Vermeulen told the court that in the garage he also found a rhino horn in a bandsaw.
“It appeared to me that someone was in the process of cutting up the horn,” he said.
On the floor were two micro-chip scanners.
He believed the scanners were used to locate microchips left in the horns.
The following day when Vermeulen searched the garden, he found six more horns.
The horns were sent for DNA testing and compared to a genetic rhino database. They got a match on one of them.
The horn belonged to a male rhino poached in the Hluhluwe Umfolozi game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal on the same day as the Centurion bust.
The animal had been killed a few days earlier.
A fingerprint matching Chu Duc was found on some of the plastic wrapped around the horn, said Vermeulen.
Advocate Mannie Witz said his client was not part of a syndicate – “What he is, is the most dispensable person in the world.”
He claimed the vehicle Chu Duc was driving was registered to the Centurion complex’s landlord, who also owned a game farm in Klerksdorp, where legal rhino hunts were conducted.
Witz said there were legal permits to hunt rhinos.
Vermeulen said no permits were found relating to the eight seized horns.
“If these horns were legally hunted, why would they need to transport the horn in a secret compartment or hide them in the garden?” he asked.
Chu Duc’s sentencing hearing will continue on December 6.
Rhino poaching was no smash-and-grab kind of crime, but had a highly organised structure.
This is according to Colonel Gerhard Vermeulen of the SAPS’s Forensic Science Laboratory.
Speaking in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on Friday, Vermeulen described how the price of rhino horns escalated as it moved up the crime syndicate. At the bottom level was the poacher – he said police had found that the poacher could make between R45 000 and R90 000 for each rhino.
Next level up was the local receiver in the area.
This was often the person who provided the firearm.
“It is difficult to determine what a level two will make, but in a recent case, we arrested a person who had several million rand in cash on him,” said Vermeulen.
“He told me this was one month’s earnings.”
Further up the chain was the national courier, who was often also the exporter, according to Vermeulen.
At this level, the horn’s value jumps to R500 000 a kilogram, he said.