IT WAS a relatively quiet affair – the sentencing in Port Elizabeth last week of two men convicted of trading in rhino horn. But it shines a light: on fine work being done by our enforcement authorities, on the complexities of sufficient evidence, on the outrage a lot of us feel about this crime.
Investigating officer W/O Leon Eksteen, of the Hawks rhino anti-poaching unit, explained the background to me. The pair sentenced, Riaan Ross, 26, and Nicholaas Killian, 26, both first offenders, were arrested in May 2011, following skullduggery initiated by Killian several months
Killian was at the time working on a game farm in the Mossel Bay area. The trouble started when he made contact with owners of a farm near George, and offered to buy two rhino horns they had in their possession.
With an estimated weight of 4.5kg, the horns came from a white rhino which had been kept legally on the farm and which had died of natural causes some years before. In terms of the law, they had been measured, weighed and micro-chipped and the owners had been issued with the necessary permit to keep them.
The owners told Killian they were not allowed to sell the horns. However he persisted and, in evidence accepted by the magistrate, he told the owners he was going to steal the horns from them unless they agreed to sell them to him.
Alerted by the owners, Eksteen and his team travelled to the farm to discuss options with them and then, with approval got from the National Prosecuting Authority, they set up a sting.
Communication with the suspects was made and agreement reached. The horns would be theirs for R66000 per kilogramme. This payment would start with a deposit of R50000, which Killian and Ross (who is from Port Elizabeth) would produce, and then the rest would come from a middle man once he had seen the horns.
The transaction spot, a property at Bushbuck Ridge near Maitlands, was also identified and agreed on. It was ideal from the point of view of the Hawks team as there was an electric gate which could be closed, which would prevent the suspects’ escape if anything went wrong.
The night of the sting, murky and thundery, he and his men concealed themselves in a building adjacent to the one where the transaction was happening with audio comms of how the deal was proceeding.
The money was produced by the suspects, and the team were about to swoop – when lightning crackled, and a tree it hit toppled across electricity lines. Everything went black.
Realising they could not hesitate, Eksteen and his men struck with torches in one hand and firearms in the other.
Caught red-handed, the suspects subsequently pled guilty. Besides the confiscation of the R50000, Ross’ bakkie and cellphone were seized and he was fined R40000 and sentenced to five years imprisonment, suspended for five years. Killian was sentenced to three years’ community service as well as five years imprisonment, suspended for five years.
Eksteen says he is satisfied with the sentence. "The horns were not illegal, from an animal that had been poached. Yes, we knew very well they were going to feed the same market which is driving the poaching. But we had no proof of this, and the court could only deal with what was in front of it.”
However, Outraged Citizens Against Poaching spokesman, Port Elizabeth resident Ayesha Cantor, argues that the magistrate should have taken into account the horrific poaching situation where an average of nearly three rhinos a day are now being lost in South Africa.
"These are desperate times. What kind of a message does this sentence send out? The criminals are ahead of us on this and one of the few weapons we have is to put them away for a good long time.”
In Julian Rademeyer’s excellent expose of the rhino poaching trade Killing for Profit it is clear that the whole awful business, and the multitude of different role-players, are all geared toward supplying the same voracious Eastern market.
So the animal which bore the horns in this case died naturally. But the elephant in the room, so to speak, is the savagery of rhino poaching underway right now in this country. This year alone, up until February 13, 96 rhino have been killed.
Clearly, we need a law that recognises that, unless proved otherwise, the only reason anyone would want to buy rhino horn is to supply this black market. And anyone who deals with this despicable market should be jailed, for a very long time.