Hearing held in landmark rhino poaching case
The 11 suspects include a safari tour operator and his wife, two veterinarians, an animal clinic employee, a pilot, a professional hunter and farm workers.
Police investigators believe the group could be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of rhinos over the past few years. The buried carcasses of 20 animals were discovered on the safari operator’s property late last year. Nearly a quarter of South Africa's rhinos are privately owned.
The suspects are facing a slew of weapons, assault, and malicious injury charges, as well as charges of corruption and fraud. Additionally, they are accused of violating the National Environmental Management of Biodiversity Act, the Prevention of Organised Crime Act, and the Medicines and Related Substances Act.
A total of 333 rhinos were poached in South Africa during 2010. So far this year 89 have been killed, including 6 critically endangered black rhinos.
“South African authorities have recognized rhino poaching as a "priority crime", and those convicted of killing the animals should rightfully be punished to the full extent of the law,” says WWF African Rhino Programme Coordinator Dr. Joseph Okori. “Convicting these suspects and imposing the maximum sentences will send a message to other wildlife criminals that poaching will not be tolerated in this society.”
In South Africa rhino poaching can carry sentences of 12-15 years in prison.
Illegal killing of rhinos has risen sharply in South Africa over the past few years. Demand for rhino horn, a prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicine, has driven the increase. Government authorities have responded by allocating additional resources and implementing more aggressive anti-poaching patrols. Over 60 suspected poachers have been arrested in 2011.
“Throughout this case the South African National Parks Association has demonstrated its dedication to the country's prized protected species, and exhibited its ability to bring poachers to the courts of justice,” says WWF African Rhino Programme Coordinator Dr Joseph Okori. “During the trial WWF anticipates a skillful and rigorous prosecution that will set the bar for future cases.”
Two additional suspects believed to be associated with the syndicate were arrested separately. One man, accused of selling 36 rhino horns, committed suicide before standing trial, according to reports.