Joint operation nets poaching 'kingpin'

10 July 2011 - 01:29 By STAFF REPORTER

A Thai national believed to be a kingpin in the illicit trade of rhino horns was arrested yesterday morning in a major breakthrough against rhino poaching.

The 43-year-old man was arrested at a house in Edenvale, east of Johannesburg, in a joint operation by the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the Hawks and forensic investigator Paul O'Sullivan.

The man, who is due to appear in court tomorrow, was searched by SARS officials at OR Tambo International Airport when he entered the country on June 13.

According to SARS spokesman Anton Fisher, officials found various documents on the man - including an order for 50 sets of rhino horns, a computer and a cellphone.

Said Fisher: "The suspect allegedly obtained rhino- hunting permits under false pretences in terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).

"Such permits issued under Cites are specifically for trophy hunting and not for the illicit trade in rhino horn."

It is believed that once the animals were killed on supposed trophy-hunting trips in South Africa, the rhino horns were sent abroad by the suspect who paid, on average, about R65000 per kilogram for the rhino horns.

Fisher added: "The arrest follows an extensive investigation by SARS officials into the activities of the suspect and a trading (import/export) company based in Laos (in south east Asia)."

Yesterday's arrest comes after the successful prosecution of another Thai national, Punpitak Chunchom, for the illegal possession of lion claws and teeth.

He was deported last week. Both Chunchom and the man arrested are employed by the same export company.

The "hunting" of the rhino is believed to have taken place at a farm in North West.

It has also been established that more hunting was planned until the end of the year and that the poachers were hoping to kill at least 15 rhino a month and ship the horns to Thailand.

Last year, in the Kruger National Park alone, more than 146 rhinos were poached for their horns.

The current wave of poaching is being committed by sophisticated criminal networks using helicopters, night-vision equipment, veterinary tranquillisers and silencers to kill rhinos at night while attempting to avoid law enforcement patrols.

O'Sullivan commended SARS and the Hawks for having "done an excellent job in combating this scourge".