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Rancher out on R100,000 bail after ‘26 unreported rhino carcasses’, horns found on Limpopo farm

Rancher out on R100,000 bail after ‘26 unreported rhino carcasses’, horns found on Limpopo farm
African rhino horn on live animals at an undisclosed location. (Photo: Zahir Ali / Zali Photography)

Derek Lewitton, a long-standing advocate for legalising international trade in rhino horn, was granted bail by a local magistrates’ court on Wednesday, 10 January. Private rhino owners, argues a major sector association, are desperate to salvage their livelihood amid a tanking industry.

Accused of possessing 17 rhino horns along with 16 “unlawful firearms” and ammunition, Derek Lewitton, a local rancher, has been granted release on R100,000 bail by the Namakgale Magistrates’ Court in Phalaborwa, Limpopo.

The Limpopo rhino rancher, a prominent figure in the private sector, had appeared in court near Kruger National Park for a formal bail application.

Citing a need to verify Lewitton’s residential address, marital status and citizenship, the State had previously requested a remand to keep him in custody. 

On Wednesday, 10 January, however, the court granted the accused bail, stating that his details had been confirmed and reporting no further grounds for opposal.

According to a police statement, Lewitton was arrested on 22 December after a 16-hour investigation at a game farm near the small town of Gravelotte, where law enforcement said they had found “26 unreported rhino carcasses”.

The high-level operation, conducted west of Kruger, was overseen by Major-General Jan Scheepers, Limpopo’s deputy provincial commissioner.

Launched after a tip-off by “a reliable source”, the sting was executed by a multidisciplinary task force comprising members of the Hawks, the South African Police Service’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation; Visible Policing; the Polokwane Tactical Response Unit; the Firearms Unit and the local Criminal Records Centre.

“An investigation was registered, and a search warrant obtained. The operation commenced around 8am,” noted Limpopo spokesperson Brigadier Hlulani Mashaba. 

‘Dead rhinos everywhere you looked’

Scheepers reported that a helicopter was dispatched to survey the property, uncovering a scene reminiscent of a “slaughterhouse”. 

“Everywhere you looked, there were rhinos lying dead,” Scheepers said. 

In addition to carcasses, some “unmarked rhino horns” were reportedly discovered in a safe “without paperwork”. 

Horns with a value allegedly totalling R10-million were seized by the Hawks while the raid also confiscated “unlawfully acquired firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition”.

Lewitton was taken into police custody shortly before midnight on the same day. His laptop and cellphone were also confiscated.

“The law is very clear,” Scheepers said. “Once you find a rhino in the veld, no matter if it has been killed, or has died of natural causes, you are not allowed to remove the horns. You must report it to the South African police and to the department of nature conservation.”

At the time of publishing, it was unclear how many surviving rhino remained on the property, and if more dead animals had been found. 

‘Dedicated, honest and fiercely courageous rangers’

Lewitton’s website, however, claims the rancher and his wife, Xenja, are “responsible for hundreds of rhino on thousands of acres of wild African land” through Black Rock Rhino Conservation, a ranching business.

“We are very lucky to have a team of dedicated, honest and fiercely courageous rangers protecting the animals of Black Rock Rhino Conservation,” according to the site.

The site also notes that Lewitton is a former senior executive who holds a law doctorate from Stanford.

The US-educated rancher is well known within the private sector to have fought unsuccessfully for several years to trigger international trade in rhino horn, which is currently banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

We could not reach the Lewitton family for comment.

However, a statement reportedly written by a family representative argues that the rancher was being unfairly persecuted.

“The salacious rumours which are currently circulating the press are wholly unsubstantiated and serve only to undermine the interests of justice,” the statement says. “Allegations that the bush was littered with unreported carcasses, or that horns were hacked out of skulls and packed for shipping are demonstrably false, and if such statements had any veracity, Mr Lewitton would surely have been charged with those offences. He has not.”

The statement claims that “Mr Lewitton’s reserve has been violently assaulted by poachers for months … but it is a tragedy that the police have opted to pursue the victim of a crime with more vigour than the true perpetrators.”

Despite attempts, Daily Maverick could not verify the authenticity of the statement, which goes on to suggest that “as many as eight rhinos” had been poached since Lewitton’s detention.

Private sector ‘heroes’

Since the start of the rhino poaching crisis in about 2007, more than 10,000 rhinos have been slaughtered for their horns in South Africa. With Kruger National Park and adjacent reserves recently dehorning rhinos, illegal demand for horn now appears to have shifted to other reserves and targets. 

For instance, in the first quarter of 2023, South African environmental authorities reported that the epicentre of the bloodbath was now in KwaZulu-Natal, where 60% of poaching casualties for the period had been claimed. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, which had not dehorned any animals, was among reserves in the province bearing the brunt of that shift.

Pelham Jones, director of the Private Rhino Owners Association, told Daily Maverick that Lewitton was not a member of the association and declined to comment on the charges brought against him.

Jones, however, pointed out that the private sector remained under great stress — a situation echoed by the landmark 2023 sale of rhino rancher John Hume’s 2,000-strong herd to African Parks, which has earmarked the animals for rewilding over the next decade.

Hume’s attempt to auction off his rhinos in April 2023 attracted zero bids.

Financial ‘distress, desperation’

“Rhino owners are financially extremely distressed,” said Jones. “We own over 8,000 rhino of the national herd of some 13,000 rhino.” 

Jones argued that “the private sector has carried out a heroic act in terms of looking after the species. We are growing our population by some 7.2% to 7.6% year on year — that’s after poaching losses, and we derive zero income through any kind of exploitation.”

Jones said the value of privately owned rhino had “plummeted”. Security expenses were “astronomical”, costing the national, provincial and private sectors around R2-billion per annum, he said.

“And so now we’re in a situation of some degree of desperation on certain properties,” he argued.

Jones added: “We certainly would not condone any individual who carries out any act which would be deemed to be unlawful.”

Colin Bell, a South African conservationist and prominent campaigner against legalising the international horn trade told us that “it was never going to happen, so I am surprised that people like Lewitton decided to invest in horn in the first place. The economics for trade just don’t stack up.”

Bell demurred that the “potential size of the market is way too large if demand was ever stimulated through legalised trade. The amount of rhino horn that South Africa could sustainably supply annually to the market is way too small.”

The conservationist contended that this supply “would not be anywhere near enough to satisfy demand. If trade was ever legalised, the only winners would be the international poaching syndicates and maybe a handful of rhino horn speculators. History has proven that one can never trade the body parts of endangered species in the hope of saving them from extinction.”

Lewitton’s case has been postponed to Thursday, 7 March, according to Mashudu Malabi-Dzhangi, a National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson. It is scheduled to be heard at the Namakgale Magistrates’ Court. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Alastair Stalker says:

    Don’t hold your breath for a prosecution! We’re still waiting for Dawie Groenewald

  • Simon Espley says:

    Correction: John Hume’s farm and rhinos were sold to African Parks, who have committed to rewilding as many of the herd as possible. African Parks manages over 22 million hectares of protected areas across Africa and has an excellent anti-poaching track record.

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