File photo: ANA

Mahikeng - Four rhino poachers were convicted and sentenced in the Zeerust Regional Court to lengthy prison terms this week, the office of the director of public prosecutions (DPP) in the North West said.

The case stemmed from an incident in the evening of March 29, 2017 when the operations room manager at Madikwe Game Reserve and member of the intelligence anti-poaching unit received images from a camera inside the reserve showing armed men walking along the western fence of the reserve – a hotspot inside the Madikwe Game Reserve, the DPP said in a statement.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) was contacted for assistance, and the surrounding area, as well as the national roads, were subsequently patrolled. One of the rangers noticed a white VW Polo picking up a person exiting the park. A stop-and-search point was set up along the R49 road. 

When the suspicious VW approached the search point, it sped off. The vehicle was pursued by police and it came to a sudden stop, with the three male occupants getting out and fleeing in different directions.

The VW Polo with Gauteng registration plates was searched. Inside the vehicle, two fresh rhino horns were discovered in a khaki schoolbag. The areas where the men had fled into were also searched, and a .375 calibre hunting rifle, 20 .375 rounds, a silencer, and three knives were discovered.

A till slip from the Shell garage in Zeerust was also recovered from the car, and video footage from the garage assisted in the identifying of suspects. The VW Polo was registered in the name of Johannes Mothopa. As the investigation progressed, Monda Ndlovu, Patrick Khoza, and Samuel Maseve were arrested.

"A pointing out was done and the carcass of a white rhino bull was discovered. Both horns were removed. DNA samples were collected from the carcass. The horns that were recovered from the VW Polo were forwarded for DNA analysis," the DPP said.

Dr Cindy Harper of Onderstepoort concluded that the DNA collected from the carcass on the scene of the crime was that of a white rhino bull. She further compared the DNA collected from the knife blades as well as the DNA extracted from the two horns and concluded that all the samples were those of the white rhino bull. Fingerprints lifted from inside the VW Polo also positively linked Ndlovu to the crime.

Khoza and Maseve were convicted on three counts - hunting a rhino, dehorning a rhino, and possession of rhino horn. They were further convicted of entering a protected area without permission, as well as possession of an illegal firearm and ammunition. They were each sentenced to 28 years imprisonment. 

Ndlovu was convicted on two counts of conspiracy - hunting a rhino and dehorning a rhino - and one count of possession of rhino horn. He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Mothopa was convicted on one count of conspiracy to commit an offence - hunting a rhino - and was sentenced to five years imprisonment, the DPP said.

African News Agency (ANA)