Sunday 23 September 2018

South African Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation arrests nine members of Rhinoceros poaching gangs this week.

The South African Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (or Hawks) have arrested nine people on Rhinoceros poaching related charges this week. On Tuesday 18 September 2018 six people were arrested in Mpumalanga Province, identified as Phenias Lubisi, 56, a police Station Commander, Xolani Lubisi, 33, a former police officer, Thembisile Mhlanga, 30, a serving police officer, Clyde Mnisi, 33, Petrus Mabuza Mshengu, 53, known as 'Mr Big', and Joseph Nyalunga, 54, another former police officer, widely known as 'Big Joe' and thought to be a leading figure in the smuggling syndicate. At the same time a number of luxury vehicles, trucks, motorbikes, animal skins and a large amount of cash were seized. On Thursday 20 September a seventh alleged member of the same gang, Rachel Qwabana, 33, a female police officer working with the Acornhoek Stock Theft Unit, surrendered to authorities voluntarily, having managed to evade arrest for two days. In a separate incident two men were arrested in a house in Standerton, Mpumalanga, while attempting to sell Rhino horns with an estimated value of R7 million (US$489 000), as well as an unlicensed firearm and ammunition. It is unclear if this incident was related to the other arrests.

 Joseph 'Big Joe' Nyalunga, an alleged member of a South African Rhino poaching syndicate arrested on 18 September 2018, at a former court hearing. Lowvelder.

Park authorities and private game reserves across Africa and Asia have been struggling with the problem of Rhino poaching for decades, but the problem has become more acute in recent years, with over a thousand killed in South Africa alone in 2017, and over 5500 in the past five years. The country is home to about 20 000 Rhinos, about 80% of the entire African population. The crime is extremely profitable, and widely believed to be controlled by organised crime syndicates, which are believed to have considerable influence over police and court officials in many areas, which results in suspected poachers often being released before they are brought to trial, often with only nominal bail payments.

The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation was founded in 2008 to replace the Directorate of Special Operations (or Scorpions) the former South African specialist organise crime unit, which had become mired in controversy over investigations of politicians, which had (probably inevitably) been accused of being politically motivated. The organisation does not have the power to investigate political corruption (a policy which has also been criticised widely), but does have considerable powers to target organised crime and tackle corruption in the police and other government agencies.

Figures published by the Department of Environmental Affairs on Friday 21 September 2018 suggest a 26% drop in Rhinoceros poaching in South Africa compared to last year, with 500 animals killed in the first eight months of 2018, compared to 691 in the first eight months of 2017. This continues a falling trend since 2014, when figures peaked at 1215 Rhinoceros killed in the year, prior to which figures had risen each year since 2007, when only 13 animals were killed. However this drop is not being attributed to successes in in tackling poaching syndicates, with trials of alleged members of syndicates frequently collapsing, so much as a drop in Rhinoceros numbers (down from 9000 in 2014 to 5000 in 2018), combined with better protection technologies on reserves, particularly drones, which has made targeting Rhinos more difficult.

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