Rhino killings: more queries than answers

The slaughter of 17 rhinos at Limpopo Parks’ Letaba Ranch, which went undetected for three years, has turned the spotlight back on the possible involvement of game rangers and other officials in South Africa’s rhino slaughter.

The Letaba Ranch rhinos are thought to have been poached for their horns between 2005 and 2008.

Wildlife and conservation agencies, such as the Endangered Wildlife Trust, have queried how the carnage could have been concealed for so long and why rangers in the reserve did not detect it earlier.

Limpopo professional hunter Dawie Groenewald was arrested at the end of August, with two vets from Modimolle, on charges of rhino poaching.
Limpopo Parks held a game auction at the end of September at Vaalwater, apparently run by game capturer Coena Smith. Smith captured all the game for the auction, which earned Limpopo Parks more than R11-million.

At the same time, Smith faces two charges of illegally selling rhino horn. He is due to reappear in Modimolle’s District Court in ­February.
The Mail & Guardian established this week that Smith was a consultant to the black economic empowerment enterprise, Mafube Game Services, which was given the capturing contract by Limpopo Parks. Smith’s sons are directors of Mafube, the only BEE game-capturing company in South Africa.

The charges
Eyebrows were raised about the presence of the Steenkamp brothers, Pieta and Buks, during the game capture in August for the auction.

The two wealthy safari operators pleaded guilty to illegal hunting after they were arrested two years ago on suspicion of stealing rare roan antelope from a Limpopo park near Groblersdal. They paid a fine. Carte Blanche ran a story at the time, alleging that Limpopo Parks’ officials colluded with the brothers by giving them access to the reserve. No officials were charged.

Pieta Steenkamp did not return messages left for him by the M&G. Smith, however, said that the Steenkamps were present at the game capture because customers like to monitor the stock they intend buying from Limpopo Parks.

Limpopo Parks and Tourism did not respond to questions. After Smith was charged earlier this year he resigned from all of his companies and handed the reins to his sons. This week Smith claimed that the rhino charges were a set-up.

‘The horns, which came from a black rhino and which I kept in store legally with all the permits, were stolen from me,” he said.
He first heard that the police were investigating him in October last year, he said.

In February police raided his farm ,apparently looking for 300kg of rhino horn. It was then that they discovered the horns were missing. The authorities claim Smith sold the horn on the black market.

“Out to get him”
Mafube’s director, Frans Kobe, a former councillor in the area, also claimed that his business partner was being set up. ‘They don’t like the fact that Coena helped us establish this black empowerment company. There are people out to get him.”

Kobe acknowledged that the company was struggling to get contracts from the government. He said Mafube had made a small profit from the Limpopo Parks’ auction, but was unwilling to say how much. But while Kobe is supportive of Smith, conservationists in the area are wary of him. One source told the M&G that Smith saw game merely as a source of profit.

Smith said he believed the spike in poaching would stop once game farmers were allowed to sell rhino horn freely into the market.

‘Other game farmers have 400 legal horns they are just sitting on,” he said. ‘Just think what flooding the market with horns could do to stop poaching.”

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