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Relief as court confirms conviction of notorious rhino poaching gang

Relief as court confirms conviction of notorious rhino poaching gang
Protesters gather at the Makhanda High Court as a Full Bench of judges hears the appeal of the Ndlovu Gang, which has been sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment for rhino poaching. (Photo: Sue Maclennan / Grocott's Mail)

More than four years after their arrest, a Full Bench of the Makhanda High Court this week confirmed the conviction and 25-year sentence of the notorious Ndlovu gang, believed to be responsible for the death of several rhino over a number of years.

“Relief is probably the best word to describe it,” Dr William Fowlds said this week after an appeal brought against their conviction by a highly successful rhino poaching syndicate, known as the Ndlovu gang, was dismissed by a Full Bench of the Makhanda High Court.

The ruling, handed down on Tuesday, was met by wild applause from rhino owners and conservationists who had attended court.

It has been four-and-a-half years since the arrest of Jabulani Ndlovu, Forget Ndlovu and Sibusiso Ndlovu, who after a lengthy trial were convicted on charges relating to 10 incidents of rhino poaching in the Eastern Cape — specifically in Albany, Jansenville, Graaff-Reinet and Cradock.

“They were so successful,” Fowlds said, “that we thought there must be a number of syndicates using the same modus operandi.”

Their last rhino, Campbell, was killed on Bucklands Farm in Albany in 2016. Four rhinos were killed on Koffielaagte in Jansenville in 2013, six were killed in three incidents between 2014 and 2015 on Mount Camdeboo, two were killed on the farm Klein Doornberg near Cradock and another three on Spekboomberg in the same district.

The men were each sentenced to an effective 25 years’ imprisonment.

Most of the rhinos died from the high dosage of tranquillisers used to dart them.

The men were arrested as part of a police operation dubbed Operation Full Moon on 17 June 2016 inside a chalet at the Makana Resort in Makhanda. During their arrest, the police found a horn that had been freshly removed, a dart gun, darts, tranquilliser, a saw, .22 blank ammunition, knives, a set of pliers, a drill, six cellphones and a SIM card.

The horn belonged to Campbell, whose DNA was found on the saw.

Despite having the same surname, the three men are not related.

Jabulani, 41, is married with five children. He lived in Edenvale, Johannesburg. He ran a business exporting goods to Zimbabwe. Born in Zimbabwe, he has been living in South Africa since 1997.

Forget, 39, lived in Pacaltsdorp in George and was raising and selling chickens when he was arrested.

Sibusiso, who lived in Motherwell in Port Elizabeth, was a taxi driver and installed aluminium windows.

Summarising the cellphone tracking evidence against them, Judge Jeremy Pickering wrote in his judgment as follows:

“It is relevant in this regard that [Jabulani] lives in Port Elizabeth; [Forget] lives in Pacaltsdorp, George; and [Sibusiso] lives in a shack in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth. They have no overt connection to Grahamstown/Makhanda, Cradock, Graaff Reinet or Jansenville. They were portrayed… as not being possessed of any appreciable assets although it was common cause that each owned or had access to a motor vehicle, a GTI Golf, a Toyota and an Audi.

“Despite this, the accused felt compelled every few months, when the moon was waxing full, to hire motor vehicles, including expensive models such as a Mercedes or an Audi, and to travel many kilometres from their homes in Port Elizabeth and George into the Eastern Cape hinterland, seemingly for no ostensible reason other than to drive around the Karoo and to SMS and phone each other at extremely odd hours of the day, night and early hours of the morning such as 1am or 3am in the vicinity of scenes and at times where rhino happened to be poached. The accused gave no explanation for their highly suspicious conduct in this regard and it is difficult to conceive what innocent explanation for such conduct might be.”

Fowlds said the case was ground-breaking in many respects. “We had a lot of firsts.”

He said it was the first time that cellphone tracking evidence was used in a poaching case to place the three men close to the crime scenes. He said it was also a first as they got to present very detailed evidence on dart gun ballistics. 

Fowlds said that many in conservation circles were convinced that the men were involved in a number of other rhino poaching incidents, but as these were too long ago they did not have the evidence to charge them for it.

The men’s legal team asked a Full Bench of the Makhanda High Court to overturn their conviction on a technicality, claiming that the search and seizure by the police had been conducted without a warrant.

But Judges David Viljoen, Judith Roberson and Rob Griffiths dismissed their appeal.

“I am not aware of a single darting incident that happened after they were arrested,” Fowlds said.

Fowlds said that the same investigation team and state advocate Buks Viljoen will on Monday start a new trial for a group of men who shot the rhinos they poached.

“We really hope that this will go equally well,” Fowlds said. DM


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