Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries reports back on rhino poaching in first six months of 2019

31 July 2019


The Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros continues to deliver successes, with a considerable number of arrests linked to rhino poaching and smuggling being recorded in the first six months of 2019. This media report covers the period 1 January to 31 June 2019.

The Integrated approach was adopted by Cabinet in 2014 and is implemented through collaboration between the Departments of Environmental Affairs, Justice and Correctional Services, Defence, State Security, and the SA Police Service, alongside institutions such as SANParks, SARS and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).


Compulsory Interventions


1. Protection Zones

Some of our parks have implemented Intensive Protection Zones (IPZ) for their key rhino populations with the support of the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) project funding. These IPZ’s have fully operational Tactical Operations Centres with sensor technology that gives immediate notification to reaction teams which are further connected to other law enforcement agencies.

The next phase of implementing the zoning approach under the Rhino Conservation Lab will focus on demarcated Wildlife Zones with the aim of strengthening the intensive protection of key national rhino herd strongholds through coordination and collaboration, blurring the distinction made between national, provincial and private parks.


2. Arrests, investigations, and prosecutions

2.1 Arrests

From January to June 2019, 122 alleged poachers were arrested within the Kruger National Park.  At a national level, 253 arrests have been effected in the first six months of this year in respect of both rhino poaching and rhino horn trafficking.  A total of 61 firearms have been recovered during anti-poaching operations in the KNP in this period as well.


2.2 Investigations and Prosecutions 


With the more effective analysis of significant volumes of information at the disposal of law enforcement authorities, integrated and co-ordinated investigations are providing much clearer indications of the numerous and complex syndicates operating within South Africa.  This has also enabled us to uncover increased levels of corruption which continues to seriously undermine the work being undertaken to counter the poaching.  Concerted, and sustained efforts are being made by law enforcement to disrupt the syndicates, inclusive of the corrupt officials who are an integral part of these structures.

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High-level rhino horn trafficking cases from 1 January to June 2019:


During an integrated operation on the 9 January 2019 at ORTIA Cargo terminal, several cargo companies were approached by a team comprising members of the Police, the Hawks, customs and excise and the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Environmental Management Inspectorate (Green Scorpions). The team was supported by K9 sniffer dogs to detect products.  Following the positive reaction of one of the detector dogs to a shipment destined for Dubai, 116kg of rhino horn pieces were discovered hidden under laminated wood.

In March 2019 two Chinese nationals, aged 32 and 35, and a South African man were arrested in Gauteng for alleged rhino horn trafficking. The three were arrested on 7 March 2019 in Randburg.  The team seized five rhino horns, 14 pieces of abalone, three sea horses, two sea cucumbers, vehicles, weighing and processing equipment allegedly used in smuggling operations.

On 2 April a man was arrested in Boksburg during a rhino horn trafficking operation after being found in possession of two rhino horns with a total weight of 6.8kg.   

On 13 April, two men were arrested by the Hawks near Hartbeespoort in North West for possession of 181 rhino horns, transporting the horns without a permit and for possession of an undisclosed amount of money.  The men – Petrus Steyn, 61, and Clive Melville, 57, have been released on bail with strict bail conditions and are scheduled to appear in the Brits Magistrate’s Court on 12 July 2019.   

On 17 April, a 55-year-old Chinese woman was arrested in Bedfordview by the Hawks for the illegal possession of two rhino horns, while members of the Middelburg Flying Squad arrested a father and son on 20 April after they were found in possession of two fresh rhino horn.  The police had stopped the vehicle on the N4 near Belfast in Mpumalanga.  The pair, from Mozambique, was traveling towards Gauteng after crossing into South Africa at the Lebombo border post on 19 April.  The DPCI has taken over the investigation and is working with their Mozambican counterparts on this case.

The successes in these six months are a further indication that all partners remain committed to the fight against wildlife trafficking within South Africa and beyond the country’s borders.

Of the nine people arrested, three Chinese nationals, four South Africans and two Mozambican nationals were level four and five rhino horn traffickers. These are the top two levels in the Rhino crime syndicate pyramid.


Some of the high-profile cases that remain on the court roll include:

  1. State v Groenewald and 8 others (Pretoria High Court) Trial date: 1 – 12 February 2021
  2. State v Ras and 9 others (Pretoria High Court) Motion application: 29 November 2019.
  3. State v Gwala and others (Mtubatuba Regional Court) Trial date: 14-16 August 2019.
  4. State v Nyalungu and 9 others (Nelspruit Regional Court). Provisional date for trial: 5 September 2019.
  5. State v Landela (Skukuza Regional Court) Trial date: 17 July 2019.
  6. State v Petrus Sydney Mabuza, Nozwelo Mahumane, Moshe Thobela, and Romez Khoza. Trial date in High Court, Mbombela: 27 July 2020 – 14 August 2020.
  7. State v Petrus Sydney Mabuza & Jospeh Nyalunga. Trial date in High Court, Mbombela: 25 May 2020 – 19 June 2020.
  8. State v Mandla Mashele and Kelvin Malapane (Daveyton Magistrates Court)  Trial date: 13 August 2019
  9. State v William Tumishin Mokgati, Hlengani Samual Hlungwan and Joao Mazive (Kimberley Magistrates Court). Trial date: 23-24 July 2019.

The Department reiterates that the lifting of the moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn does not mean that rhino horn in private possession can be sold, possessed or transported without the necessary permits.  It is a serious concern that some of the rhino horn which was sold in terms of permits issued by the department as part of the legal domestic trade has been linked to illegal activities.  The system that is in place for the marking and identification (through DNA analysis and other means) enables us to quickly identify these horns and the Hawks are working closely with the Green Scorpions in relation to these investigations.  Further measures have also been implemented to further tighten the compliance monitoring and permitting processes and a number of permits have been denied and/or cancelled.  

No-one is allowed to trade rhino horn (including selling, donating, or in any way acquiring or disposing of rhino horn) without a permit issued by the Department of Environmental Affairs as well as relevant possession/transport permits issued by the provincial conservation departments. Commercial international trade in rhino horn is and remains prohibited in terms of the CITES provisions.   Private rhino horn owners should take care not to be drawn into the illicit activities or markets.


On 26 March, the case against Funokwakhe Khoza, 51, Ayanda Buthelezi, 40, and Mduduzi Xulu, 51, was finalised in the Durban Regional Court.  The men, who had been arrested in August 2009 by the KZN Hawks’ Wildlife Anti-Poaching unit and Umfolozi game rangers at a roadblock, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being convicted for the possession of rhino horn, a .303 rifle and two axes. Khoza was sentenced to 14 year’s direct imprisonment, while Buthelezi and Xulu were each sentenced to 10 years imprisonment wholly suspended for five years. 

On 3 April, three members of the Ndlovu Gang were sentenced by the Makanda High Court in the Eastern Cape to 25 years imprisonment each for 13 rhino poaching incidents in which 22 rhino were killed in the province over a period of five years. 


Jabulani Ndlovu, 40, Forget Ndlovu, 37, and Sikhumbuzo Ndlovu, 38, were arrested at the Makana Resort outside Makanda (Grahamstown) in June 2016. The men were charged with 55 counts related to 13 rhino poaching incidents near Makanda, Jansenville, Graaff-Reinet and Cradock, as well as theft, contravening environmental laws and illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.  The men were found in possession of a rhino horn, tranquiliser, a dart gun, a saw and a knife when they were arrested in 2016.  They have also been linked to poaching in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.   The sentences were ordered to run concurrently, meaning that the men would serve an effective 25 years in prison each.

The sentences handed down in each of the cases sends a strong message to would-be poachers and poaching gangs that the South African government is taking all the necessary and correct steps to ensure our rhino are protected.

However, given the significant numbers of poachers arrested over the last few years, the criminal justice system is under extreme pressure to process and finalise these cases.  In relation to the Kruger National Park 25 cases, involving 46 accused were finalised between January and end of June 2019 (involving the cumulative imprisonment jail sentence of 237 years).  However, despite the dedicated and tireless work required to finalise these cases, 201 cases remain on the court roll, involving 359 accused and 588 charges.


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1.5 Ports of Entry and Exit   

During the reporting period rhino horns were confiscated in VietNam, Hong Kong and Turkey and the Department requested information and DNA samples from the CITES Management Authorities in respect of these seizures.  The analysis of these samples and comparison of the results to the RHODIS database enables us to pinpoint where the horns seized originate from (in particular we are able to individualise specific animals and trace the samples to either specific poached animals or specific stockpile horns). This information is extremely valuable to assist in global investigations – both for investigators in South Africa and in the country of seizure. 

Although we received feedback from Turkey and Hong Kong indicating that they are willing to send the DNA samples to South Africa, these samples have still not be received. In addition to receiving very limited rhino DNA samples from countries where seizures take place, South Africa is unfortunately also receiving very little information about the seizures themselves, the modus operandi and the people involved in these seizures, even though these countries indicated their intention to comply with the CITES resolutions. Resolution 9.14 (Rev CoP17) paragraphs 1. e) i), f) and g) on the Conservation of and trade in African and Asian Rhinoceroses have been received only from two countries.

The Department has received very good co-operation in the past from Malaysia and Singapore where links have been made to poaching incidents in South Africa and Kenya with the DNA of the confiscated horns.

2. Managing Rhino Populations

2.1 Biological Management

The continental population of white rhinos was declining by 2017 as per the report of the African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).   The continental black rhino populations are, however, increasing. 

Sadly, South Africa was one of two countries that recorded white rhino declines by the end of 2017. White rhinos in South Africa declined by 51% in Kruger National Park and 26% in other state-owned parks and game reserves from 2012 to 2017.  Even though precise estimates are not available for the number of rhinos on private land, available data indicate that the number of rhinos on private land in South Africa continued to increase over the same period by approximately 27%.

The integrated initiatives of SANParks to manage its rhino populations have had varied successes. In the smaller rhino parks other than Kruger National Park, black rhinos of both sub-species, as well as white rhinos, are increasing.

Within Kruger National Park, the continued onslaught of poaching resulted in continued declines of rhinos. SANParks conducted a distribution survey of rhinos that forms part of predicting future rhino localities that can inform pro-active anti-poaching and biological management. This also allowed the evaluation of the robustness of the techniques to obtain formal rhino estimates

Of considerable note is the fact that the Kruger National Park has introduced an experimental dehorning of rhino as an intervention to offset poaching in the Park. This will be done on specific animals and targeted to poaching hotspots in order to decrease incentives for the poachers.


2.2 Poaching Statistics  

Rhino poaching has continued to decline which is in part due to the implementation of the Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros Approach and the dedication of the men and women working day and night at the coalface to save the species.

During the period of January to June 2019, the number of rhino poached countrywide was 318.  This was a decrease compared to the same period in 2018 when 386 rhino were killed for their horns.

A total of 190 rhino have been poached in the KNP for the period January to June 2019 despite the 1202 incursions and poacher activities recorded in the Park in the first six months of this year.

Despite success in driving down poaching in South Africa in recent years, rhino populations cannot keep pace with current poaching rates, and some are now in decline. Organised crime groups are exploiting rural, economically marginalised communities, neighbouring rhino reserves, particularly those in Mozambique and are undermining efforts at good governance and democracy, stimulating corruption and introducing other forms of serious crime in these areas.

As a result of this and as part of the implementation of the Rhino Conservation Lab, the Department continues to invest in partnerships with rural communities adjacent to National Parks.  In March 2019, for example, a soccer tournament was held with 450 learners from 24 schools in Phalaborwa.  These learners are now empowered to promote rhino protection within their communities as part of the Rhino Ambassadors programme, which aims to raise awareness about rhino conservation. 


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The provincial and national breakdown for 2019 (January to end of June) is as follows:


Provinces and national parks 2018 1 Jan - 30 June 2019 1 Jan - 30 June
SANParks 222 190
Gauteng 1 5
Limpopo 19 17
Mpumalanga 31 11
North West 37 17
Eastern Cape 9 1
Free State 2 8
Northern Cape 1 3
Kwa-Zulu Natal 64 66
Western Cape 0 0
Total 386 318


While elephant poaching has decreased substantially in the Kruger National Park during 2019 in comparison to the same period for 2018, 8 elephants have been poached in the KNP so far this year (January to June 2019).


3. Long-term Sustainability Interventions   

3.1 Export of live rhinoceros 

As part of interventions to ensure long term sustainability of our rhinos by expanding the range in which these magnificent animals roam, the Department of Environmental Affairs has recommended the export of a total of 105 live rhino from South Africa between January 2018 and March 2019. These exports were both for zoological purposes and for reintroduction to range states which includes Botswana, Namibia, The Kingdom of eSwatini and Zambia.

3.2 Domestic sale of rhino horn

Since the dismissal by the Constitutional Court in 2017, of the application by the Minister of Environmental Affairs to appeal the 2015 decision of the High Court of South Africa (Gauteng Division, Pretoria) to set aside the moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn, a total of 54 permits have been issued for the national trade in rhinoceros horns.  In respect of the permits issued, 23 permits were granted for the sale of a total of 2075 rhino horns, 1 permit for the donation of 14 rhino horns, 1 permit for receiving 14 rhino horns as a donation, 1 permit for the donation of 4 rhino horns, 1 permit for receiving 4 rhino horns as a donation while permits were granted to 27 buyers. 


4. International and regional cooperation  

Although we immediately reach out to relevant authorities in countries where rhino horn seizures occur, specific challenges remain in obtaining relevant information related to seizures as well as DNA samples for analysis from a number of countries.  More meaningful mechanisms need to be explored to improve on the international collaboration required to effectively conduct transnational investigations.

Co-operation with our regional partners remains strong, including with Namibia, Lesotho, The Kingdom of eSwatini and Mozambique.  The governments of South Africa and Mozambique continue to work together to implement the Memorandum of Understanding on Biodiversity Conservation and Management, with meetings taking place on a regular basis. While a number of successes have been registered in critical areas, work at present is directed at organising a Ministerial bilateral meeting between the Minister of Land, Environment and Rural Development in Mozambique, Mr. Ismael Correia, and South Africa’s newly-appointed Minister of Environment, Foresty and Fisheries, Ms. Barbara Creecy.  The meeting is expected to focus on the success and challenges of the past five years and future areas of cooperation. 

The Department of Environmental Affairs calls on members of the public to report any suspicious activities around wildlife to its environmental crime hotline which is 0800 205 005 or the SAPS number 10111.

For media inquiries contact:
Albi Modise
Cell: 083 490 2871


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