Rhino wars: the worst week ever

By Jamie Joseph
Up until one week ago, I was telling everyone that here in South Africa we had finally turned the tide on rhino poaching. In KwaZulu Natal, our three year gruelling battle exposing the ‘Blood Rhino Blacklist’ resulted in a historic victory with the disempowerment of the crooked justice officials syndicate when Regional Court President Eric Nzimande was suspended on October 5. And in Kruger, the kingpins were on a way one ticket to jail. And then it all fell apart…
October 29, China announces the country will open the domestic trade in rhino horn and tiger bones from captive-bred animals, a devastating blow to earth’s iconic species, spurring outrage across the globe.
READ response from Saving the Wild: Will South Africa’s President Ramaphosa save the rhinos from China?

November 2, the alleged rhino poaching kingpins of Kruger, Petros Sydney Mabuza aka “Mr Big” and Joseph Nyalunga aka “Big Joe”, are granted bail in a shocking turn of events – even though both were already out on bail for rhino poaching related charges.

Below are the events leading up to the worst week ever in this decade long bloody crisis.
Skip to the end, to 1 hr 17 minutes into the ‘Rhino Dollars’ documentary below to see this year’s June 12 take down of Mr Big; a Hawks Police sting operation, supported by SanParks and Saving the Wild.

The buying of the rhino horn on June 12, took place in a vehicle stinking of blood money. In a debriefing, one of Saving the Wild’s informers explained to me (and I have the unreleased video on a secure server) how after Mabuza handed over the R280 000 for one rhino horn (the other he just took for free because he said it was “too small”), he then escorted him and the undercover police agent to White River and boasted:
“Don’t worry about a thing. Nothing will happen to you. I hold this town in my hand.”

And he was speaking the truth. The operation to arrest him that June 12 day was led by the Hawks Police from Pretoria, and they had gone to great lengths to exclude anyone from Mabuza territory; Nelspruit, White River, Hazyview, and Kruger.
6 July 2018: “Bail Denied!” When this three and a half hour judgement was passed on Mabuza, the global conservation community celebrated a rare victory. It wasn’t to last. Ten days later, on July 16th, in a greased lighting turn of events, Acting High Court Judge Semenya and Assisting Acting High Court Judge Nemorati, granted Mabuza bail of R250 000 – that’s R30 000 less than what he paid for one rhino horn on the day of his June 12 arrest; pocket change for a man like Mabuza. Well known poachers, drunk and high on drugs, celebrated on the streets of Hazyview. At Mabuza’s main residence they sang victory songs. Hazyview was once again under siege by the rhino mafia.

Raising further suspicions, the transcript of that High Court judgement allowing bail to Mabuza has gone missing. How convenient.

Fast forward two months to 18 and 19 September, and in an unprecedented high level operation, Hawks Police supported by SANParks, Counter Intelligence, Special Task Force, SAPS Forensics, SARS and the NPA, arrested six syndicate members allegedly behind massive trafficking of poached rhino horns. This included alleged Kruger kingpin rivals, Petros Mabuza aka “Mr Big” and Joseph Nyalunga, aka “Big Joe”, and two police officers. Nyalunga, a former policeman, was first arrested in December 2011, and later granted bail.
READ: Rhino mafia, dirty cops, is Hazyview under siege?
READ: Media Statement from Directorate of Priority Crimes Investigation (HAWKS)

On November 2, all six accused were released on bail by Magistrate Ngobeni. And just a few days earlier the sale of Big Joe’s assets was cancelled, even though he owes R21 million to tax authority SARS. They now have the freedom, the money and the power to continue to do exactly what they have been doing all along.

Bail granted came as no surprise to Saving the Wild, not since the defense made some tactical moves to ensure they had a replacement magistrate; this Magistrate Ngobeni who gave Mabuza and Nyalunga bail, even though both were already out on bail for rhino related offences. Thanks to Magistrate Ngobeni’s outrageous judgement, witnesses lives are now at stake.

As you can see in ‘Rhino Dollars’ documentary, Mabuza is not using a wheelchair, and the use of a wheelchair during the October bail application is just part of the act. I have videos from his arrest where he has no problem walking up and down flights of stairs. This whole charade is pathetic, and yet they get away with it every time.

Moving forward, I can only assume the state will appeal as a matter or urgency, and Saving the Wild will assign a formidable legal watching brief to the appeal, and then on to a speedy trial. Yesterday’s travesty of justice is crushing to anti poaching, police and prosecutors who put up a courageous fight, and they deserve to be honoured with justice.

If the accused were to stay out on bail, then this case would drag on for many years before any chance of a trial, with a slew of silly excuses and sneaky tactics. But more likely is that blood money bribes would be paid, resulting in the case being thrown out.
This has already been illustrated in the four year trial delay of Zululand’s accused rhino horn dealer, Dumisani Gwala, with his trial due to start on 26 November – but we are only now, maybe, looking at a fair trial, because Saving the Wild first had to spend years exposing a cesspit of corruption in Zululand courts, spearheaded by Gwala’s original defense attorney Z.W. Ngwenya, ‘the deal maker’.
Sam SoleREAD: Corruption in the courtroom: A sordid tale of sex, gambling, poachers and payoffs
Yesterday’s bail judgement, coupled with China’s announcement to trade domestic rhino horn, will go down in history as the worst week ever for rhinos. This is a tragedy, and a national disgrace.

Kruger rangers are doing phenomenal work on the frontline, but it’s a never ending battle if the kingpins continue to get away with murder. Saving the Wild will stay and fight. We will take on the kingpins and we will take on the big bully corruption. Good people will, at best, be targeted and lose their jobs, and at worst, there will be assassinations – and the South African government will be responsible for this. Until President Ramaphosa makes a stand against the corruption, against rhino horn trade, and for the rhinos, they will continue to tumble into extinction.

According to an alleged meeting that took place, Ramaphosa’s first son, San Francisco based Tumelo Ramaphosa, expressed an interest in launching a rhino horn cryptocurrency auction targeted at the Chinese and Japanese market. Until President Ramaphosa clarifies his position, we can only hope father and son’s opinions differ, but we also cannot forget that senior Ramaphosa is a game rancher who has made millions buying and selling animals.
Until we can stamp out the corruption, to the point that the syndicate bosses finally get convicted, more effort needs to be spent on relocating rhinos to safe havens, such as the ‘Rhinos without Borders’ initiative. The law is not acting as a deterrent, and we must save the gene pool, an insurance policy for the species.
Where is Minister of Justice Michael Masutha in all of this?
Where is President Ramaphosa, the man who claims to be passionate about South Africa’s natural heritage and making a stand against the corruption?

For as long as these two men stay silent, a lot more rhinos will die, poachers will ravage communities with drugs, alcohol and prostitution, and tourism economies will collapse, causing more poverty and more conflict.

In the wise words of Edward Abbey, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
president-cyril-ramaphosa-and-justice-and-correctional-services-minister-michael-masutha-sing-the-national-anthem-1-novPresident Cyril Ramaphosa and Justice Minister Michael Masutha
cropped_rhinoswithoutborders_copyright_bjoubert_10Photo credit: Rhinos without Borders | Beverly Joubert

Saving the Wild is the environmental organization based in South Africa whose mandate is to pursue high level targets and expose the corruption enabling rhino poaching, because corruption is the primary driver behind illegal wildlife crime. Follow the crusade against corruption on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.