/ 17 December 2022

NPA applauded for tougher stance on rhino poachers

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Gideon van Deventer during his arrest in Limpopo.

Wildlife officials have hailed the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) recent decision to appeal what it called the lenient sentences handed to two rhino poachers in May, as well as the jailing this week of one of the men in a separate case.

On Monday, a Bronkhorstspruit magistrate sentenced Gideon van Deventer to eight years imprisonment on each of two counts relating to the illegal possession and transporting of two hunting rifles in March 2014. The sentences will run concurrently for an effective eight years in jail.

The NPA had reopened the case against Van Deventer after it emerged that the original matter from eight years ago had been struck from the roll under dubious circumstances. It was reinstated after a whistle-blower tipped off law enforcement authorities and court officials.

The former national commander of the South African Police Service’s Endangered Species Unit, retired Colonel Steve Roets, commended the new commander of detectives at Bronkhorstspruit, Lieutenant Colonel Matthys Strydom, for placing the case back on the court roll. He also welcomed the sentence given to Van Deventer.

“Given all the factors that were taken into consideration, I think eight years is an appropriate sentence, ” Roets said.

Pietermaritzburg attorney Ilan Lax, a former board-member of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, said Monday’s sentencing “goes some way to remedy the unfortunate lapse in crime intelligence and investigation eight years ago that resulted in the withdrawal of charges and release of this serial poacher and repeat offender”.

He paid tribute to state prosecutor Patsy Jacobs for what he called a well-argued address on aggravation of sentence, telling the Mail & Guardian: “That she successfully argued for and achieved two eight-year sentences, plus the fact that the brothers’ prior sentences dating from May 2022 are being taken on appeal due to their leniency, reflects well on the seriousness with which the NPA regards rhino poaching.”

“It sends an important signal that society regards these crimes in a very serious light. Gideon Van Deventer is a repeat offender and the interests of society in trying to prevent this from happening again required a deterrent sentence. This prosecutor emphasised that the accused had committed a heinous battery of crimes, which induced a sense of disgust” Lax added.

During Monday’s hearing, Jacobs told the Bronkhorstspruit court that Van Deventer had an extensive criminal record dating back to the 1980s, including prior convictions for stock-theft, possessing and transporting unlicensed firearms, and multiple counts of  illegally hunting wildlife, especially rhino.

A warning poster that was circulated to game reserves around the country at the height of the Van Deventer brothers’ rhino killing spree

Convicted in 2007 for poaching in 2005 and 2006 in five provinces and leaving up to 22 rhinos dead, Van Deventer was sentenced to 10 years in jail, of which two years were suspended. He was declared unfit to possess a firearm, and prevented from obtaining a firearm licence.

Despite the fact that he reneged on a plea agreement in 2010 to turn state witness against an alleged 10-man rhino horn syndicate that included South African hunters such as Clayton Fletcher and Gert Saaiman, and private investigator Johan le Grange, Van Deventer was released on parole in 2011, after serving just four years. 

The NPA has also applied for leave to appeal the sentences handed down to Van Deventer and his brother Nikolaas in May after they were convicted of more poaching in 2016 and 2017.

Limpopo director of public prosecutions Ivy Thenga said that “after careful perusal of the trial record, we have taken a decision to file for leave to appeal the sentences imposed by the trial court”.

“There are sufficient grounds to show the sentences in that case were not at all satisfactory. The file has already been allocated to an advocate to draft the papers for leave to appeal,” she said.
Branded as serial rhino poachers and repeat offenders with links to the criminal world of the “Boere rhino-horn mafia”, Van Deventer is currently serving a 10-year sentence at the Thohoyandou Correctional Centre, while his brother Nikolaas  is serving 15 years at the maximum security Kutama Sinthumule Prison.

They were re-arrested with Zimbabwean wildlife trafficking kingpin Onward Muchagowa in January 2017, after they had killed three rhinos for their horns over the 2016-17 New Year holiday period.

Muchagowa was convicted in a separate trial last month, and was due to be sentenced next week.