PRETORIA– The Directorate for Priority Crimes Investigation of the South African police, better known as the Hawks, has scored a significant victory in the fight against rhino horn poaching after six key syndicate members were arrested separately on Tuesday in the province of Mpumalanga.

The six were netted in an operation led by the elite crime unit, supported by the counter intelligence, Special Task Force and Forensic Science Service units of the police as well as the South African National Parks (SANParks), the Department of Environmental Affairs, the South African Revenue Services and the National Prosecuting Authority.

Hawks Spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi said Wednesday that the police found and confiscated luxury vehicles and motorcycles, trucks, an undisclosed amount of money, animal skins and properties during the swoop. Several suspected stolen items were also recovered, including trailers, generators and various electronic equipment.

The seized items are estimated to exceed millions of rand in value, Mulaudzi said.

Among the arrested suspects, aged between 30 and 56, are two alleged syndicate leaders, one right hand man, two police officers and a former police officer. They were to appear in the Magistrate’s Court in White River, Mpumalanga, later Wednesday to face charges of theft, conspiracy to commit a crime, illegal buying and selling of rhino horns, corruption and money laundering.

Internal disciplinary processes are already underway for the arrested police officers, Mulaudzi said, adding that they expect this to be done expeditiously.

The significant breakthrough follows an investigative project termed “Project Broadbill” by the Hawks’ Wildlife Trafficking Section, which began its work in January last year. The project focused on the criminal supply chain of poached rhinos within the Kruger National Park, KwaZulu-Natal Province, Gauteng Province and other private or State-owned reserves. The syndicate members allegedly ran poaching groups with the support of corrupt police officials, as well as authorities from the private game farms, said Mulaudzi.

The criminal operations were well planned and allegedly achieved with para-military discipline and counter intelligence actions to prevent any exposure. The logistical, transport and communication support of the criminal group was also well managed and controlled and allegedly succeeded to move rhino horns from the protected areas to places where the transactions took place. The illegal transactions were also protected by alleged corrupt officials to ensure no detection from law enforcement, Mulaudzi said.

The rhino horns would allegedly be sold at high prices to markets within Gauteng before being distributed to South East Asian markets.

The national head of the Hawks, Lieutenant-General Godfrey Lebeya, has lauded the collaborative effort, saying it was a huge success in the country’s fight against rhino poaching.

We have often been seized with picking up the remains of endangered species and not finding and arresting the poachers and traffickers behind the crime. The operation spells hope for rhinos and other endangered species and we are fully committed to eradicating poaching and trafficking.

Mulaudzi said the Hawks would continue to team up with key enforcement partners and government departments in carrying out crucial investigations and arresting those behind the slaughter of wild life.

The operation is still proceeding today. More seizures and possible arrests are expected.