German beetle thieves plead guilty

Four German nationals pleaded guilty to illegally collecting rare stag beetles in the Western Cape when they appeared in the Paarl Regional Court on Monday.

The beetles, of the Colophon genus, are reportedly worth thousands of rands on international markets.

The four, cousins Albert and Gunter Rautenstrauch, and Wolfgang Schubert and Werner Lenz, formally admitted guilt in statements handed to the court. The Rautenstrauchs face five counts of illegally collecting, hunting and possessing endangered insects. Schubert faces one count of possession of Colophon beetles, and Lenz one of hunting them.

The four were arrested at a roadblock near Ceres a fortnight ago, and appeared later in the Ceres Magistrate’s Court, where they were released on bail of R5 000 each and ordered to hand over their passports.

In their statements to the court on Monday, the Rautenstrauchs described themselves as beetle ”enthusiasts”.

Both men said they had ”a substantial collection of insects, beetles, spiders and scorpions at home in Germany … collected or acquired by exchange”.

Presenting evidence to the court, Cape Nature Conservation environmental crime unit head Paul Gildenhuys said a search of a guest house in Ladismith, where the four men had been staying, had found 211 Colophon beetles among the 842 insects and seven live scorpions in the Germans’ possession. Among the insects confiscated were 400 ”common beetles”, 33 ants, 25 termites, 17 bombardier beetles, 41 fruit beetles, and one cocoon, a locust and a dragonfly.

In their guilty pleas to the court, all four of the accused said they were ”sincerely remorseful”.

The maximum penalty for the charges they face is either a R100 000 fine, or 10 years in prison, or both.

Gildenhuys presented as evidence items of equipment found at the time of the men’s arrest. These included a lightweight generator and lamps, numerous plastic containers, an insect catch net, and chemicals and hypodermics for killing the insects they captured.

”If you look at the equipment they brought with them, it’s clear they intended to collect,” he told the court.

Police and CNC officials also found a map of the Oudtshoorn area, marked with the likely locations of the insects they sought.

In their statements, the Rautenstrauchs admitted to hunting and collecting Colophon insects in the Swartberg Nature Reserve between December 28 last year and January 9. Further, they admitted to knowing that Colophon beetles were endangered, and that to collect them in a provincial nature reserve without a permit was an offence.

”I admit that at all times I realised that I acted unlawfully and could be punished for my conduct,” both men said in separate but similar statements. At the time of their arrest near Ceres, the men were returning from a collecting trip on Matroosberg, the highest peak in the Western Cape.

Gildenhuys said Colophon beetles were both rare and unique, and listed as ”threatened” in South Africa, the highest level of protection. Any international trade in the species required a Cites permit.

The various species of the beetle were found only in certain locations in the Western Cape, and were ”living fossils”, having survived for hundreds of thousands of years. This made them highly desirable among collectors, who were prepared to pay large sums to obtain them.

The four Germans, who arrived in South Africa on December 28 last year, were arrested on January 9. The case continues on Tuesday. – Sapa

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Richard Davies
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