The investigation remains ongoing and at least six suspects will be facing a raft of charges in court.

A national Hawks operation led to arrests of four policemen and two major kingpins allegedly involved in rhino poaching. The major police operation to arrest the alleged poachers began on Tuesday, according to police spokesperson Captain Dineo Sekgotodi.

This is part of the largest police operation against rhino poaching countrywide, reports the Lowvelder.

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“While the investigation was ongoing, it was found one of the suspects owes SARS R21 million,” said Sekgotodi.

The Hawks were still confiscating assets belonging to the accused. All six were expected to appear in the White River Magistrate’s Court later on Wednesday facing charges of theft, conspiracy to commit a crime, illegal buying and selling of rhino horns, corruption and money laundering.

The Hawks’ spokesperson, Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi, said the arrests were made by the Hawks, supported by Counter Intelligence, Special Task Force, SAPS Forensic Science Service, SANParks, the department of environmental affairs, SARS and Customs and the National Prosecuting Authority.

“During the swoop members found and confiscated luxury vehicles and motorbikes, trucks, an undisclosed amount of money, animal skins, properties, lots of suspected stolen items, which include among others trailers, generators and various electronic equipment. The seized items are estimated to exceed millions of rand in value.

“The suspects aged between 30 and 56, include two alleged syndicate leaders, one right hand man, two police officers and a former cop.

“The expeditious internal disciplinary processes are already underway for the arrested police officers.”

He said the significant breakthrough followed an investigative – Project Broadbill – by the Wildlife Trafficking Section of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation that commenced in January last year.

The project focused on the criminal supply chain of poached rhinos within the Kruger National Park, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng 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.

The areas in control of the alleged syndicate include traditional trust areas such as Cork, Belfast, Mkhuhlu, Calcutta and Shabalala trust around the Hazyview and Mbombela magisterial districts within Mpumalanga.

“The criminal operations were well planned and allegedly achieved with para-military discipline and counter intelligence actions to prevent any exposure,” said Mulaudzi.

“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 will take place. The illegal transactions were also protected by alleged corrupt officials to ensure no detection from law enforcement.

“The rhino horns would allegedly get sold at the highest price to the markets within Gauteng, whereafter it gets distributed to the South East Asian markets.

National Head of the Hawks Lieutenant-General Godfrey Lebeya lauded the collaborative action as a huge success in the fight against rhino poaching in the country.

“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.

“We will continue teaming up with key enforcement partners and governments departments in carrying out crucial investigations and arresting those behind the slaughter of our wild life,” said Lebeya.

The operation was still proceeding, with more seizures and possible arrests expected.