South Africa


Suspect in court after Hawks make breakthrough on theft of 51 rhino horns from North West Parks Board

Suspect in court after Hawks make breakthrough on theft of 51 rhino horns from North West Parks Board
A rhino art installation by Andre Carl van der Merwe on Sea Point Promenade seen on World Rhino Day on 22 September 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

A 40-year-old man has appeared in the Mmabatho Magistrates’ Court for the theft of 51 rhino horns from the North West Parks Board last week. Police say more arrests are imminent.

The Hawks have made a breakthrough in the hunt for the gang that stole 51 rhino horns from the guarded security vaults of the North West Parks Board last week.

A 40-year-old Malawian national appeared in the Mmabatho Magistrates’ Court on Monday, 3 July, in connection with the brazen heist that had the hallmarks of an inside job.

More arrests are imminent, say the Hawks.

Hawks spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Tinyiko Mathebula told Daily Maverick the arrested suspect is Elias Manganda, of Boitekong, Rustenburg.

“The suspect was arrested on Thursday night after information led the investigation team to a house at Boitekong. The team [was] comprised of members of NW Hawks’ Serious Organised Crime unit assisted by the Rustenburg SAPS (Public Order Policing) and Crime Intelligence,” Mathebula said. 

“He appeared in the Mmabatho Magistrates’ Court this morning [July 3] where he was charged with business robbery. The case was remanded till Friday for further investigation and bail application.”  

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Kick in the gut’ – thieves escape with 51 rhino horns from North West Parks Board HQ

According to information from sources close to the investigation, there could have been as many as 15 people involved in the heist at what is supposed to be well-guarded and secure government-run premises.

Mathebula said he could neither confirm nor deny the allegation, adding that “the matter was still under investigation”.

Asked whether any of the horns had been recovered, he replied: “The horns have not been found yet, but five vehicles believed to have been used in the commission of the crime were confiscated for further investigation.”

The seized vehicles are listed as a Range Rover, a Land Rover, a BMW, a Nissan X-Trail and a Honda Civic.

A source close to the investigation alleged that Manganda had purchased one of the vehicles with the proceeds from the burglary. Mathebula would not confirm the allegation, saying it “forms part of our investigation”.

Military precision

Last week, Daily Maverick reported the horns were stolen in a well-planned heist executed with military precision.

The thieves broke into the Heritage House headquarters of the North West Parks Board in the early hours of Monday, 26 June, and stole 51 rhino horns worth millions of rands on the black market.

Located on the shores of Cookes Lake, Heritage House is a five-minute drive from the centre of the bustling North West town of Mahikeng.

According to an anonymous report that circulated after the robbery, thieves broke into the main vault at the agency’s security-patrolled offices between 1.30am and 2.15am. They allegedly accessed the resource security offices on the first floor after cutting wires on the distribution board, disabling the alarms and removing security cameras.

Available camera footage shows two persons with their faces covered.

The burglars left the premises carrying the horns in large woven polypropylene packaging bags through a back gate, the locks of which had been cut.

According to Pieter Nel, the North West Parks Board’s acting chief conservation officer, the looted horn stockpile, consisting of 14 large horns from mortalities and 37 smaller horns and trimmed pieces from dehorning operations, was about to be transferred to a safer location.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rhino poaching on the rise, KZN focus of carnage while private sector turns the tide

“Why continue to stockpile rhino horn when its sale is internationally banned, and at what cost?” asked Mary Rice, executive director at the international Environmental Investigation Agency UK.

“It is widely acknowledged that sophisticated organised criminal networks are involved in the international trafficking of wildlife and here is yet another example of how these criminals run rings around the authorities and exploit corrupt individuals who are often the mandated guardians of the target. 

“If the horn was systematically destroyed, then criminals wouldn’t have access to stockpiles, putting people at risk and putting money into what is effectively a black hole to store the horn securely — or not, when corruption and organised criminal syndicates are added to the mix and perpetuating an illegal market thousands of miles away,” Rice said.

“This perpetuates the notion that at some point the markets will reopen, and stimulates illegal trade and the vicious cycle that South Africa finds itself in with regard to fighting the organised gangs exploiting their rhino and presenting real risks to life for those at the front line.”

In 2014, thieves broke into the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency HQ in Nelspruit. Using heavy machinery, they cracked open the safe and stole 112 pieces of rhino horn. That crime was never solved. DM

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

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