Riaan Vermaak
Riaan Vermaak
Ewart Potgieter
Ewart Potgieter

Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal - The prospect of making a substantial amount of money was what attracted two KwaZulu-Natal farmers to the illegal hunting of rhinos.

Ewart Potgieter, 34, of Louwsberg, and Riaan Vermaak, 32, of Newcastle, pleaded guilty in the Vryheid Regional Court this week to charges of conspiracy to hunt rhino and attempting to hunt rhino and the possession of illegal firearms and ammunition.

Potgieter was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment – six years for conspiracy to hunt rhino and attempting to hunt rhino, 10 years for possession of illegal firearms and two years for possession of illegal ammunition.

Vermaak received 10 years and six months – six years for for conspiracy to hunt rhino and attempting to hunt rhino, four years for possession of illegal firearms and six months for possession of illegal ammunition.

They will serve an effective 11 years and seven-and-a-half years respectively.

The pair, with their alleged accomplices, Philomon Mbatha, 42, and brothers Dumisane Sithole, 30, and Mduduzi Sithole, 32 – game rangers at the Mkuze Falls Private Game Reserve – were arrested five months ago during a sting operation.

Undercover police agents led by Warrant Officer Jean-Pierre van Zyl-Roux, of the Durban Organised Crime Unit, were taken to the reserve, ostensibly to poach 10 rhinos.

Charges against Mbatha were withdrawn because he had no knowledge of the hunt.

The Sithole brothers are expected to appear in court today for a trial date.

In his guilty plea, Potgieter said he had met a Piet Harvey in January who told him there was money to be made from the illegal hunting of rhino.

He said Harvey gave him the telephone number of a “Johan” – a police agent – with whom he made contact and started discussions on rhino poaching.

Potgieter said he then met Dumisane Sithole, who also allegedly offered his help during a hunt for rhinos at Mkhuze Falls.

The discussions about the hunt went on until March, when Potgieter said he met Vermaak and enlisted his help.

He said it was agreed the hunt would take place at the game reserve.

Sithole and Mduduzi allegedly agreed to take them to the farm and supply them with one of the farm’s two-way radios to keep track of the rangers.

If the hunt was successful, Sithole would delay reporting it for as long as possible, Potgieter said.

It was also agreed that “Johan” would do the hunting while Vermaak kept guard.

On March 4, Potgieter went to Mkhuze Falls with “Johan”, Vermaak and Mbatha.

Potgieter was arrested by “Johan” moments after he cut the fence to gain entry into the farm.

Police recovered two rifles, a pistol and live ammunition at his home.

In his guilty plea, Vermaak said he had agreed to help in the hunt because of financial problems. - Daily News