In the ever-widening fight against rhino poaching, the fact that a suspected rhino poacher has escaped prosecution by walking out of court a free man leaves more questions than answers.
A comparison of recent figures and statistics seems to indicate that the battle against rhino poaching is being lost. According to the fourth National Compliance and Enforcement Report (NECER) that the Department of Environmental Affairs released on 4 November, a total of 214 suspected rhino poachers were arrested between April 2010 and March 2011. The number of rhinos that have been poached countrywide this year is far larger.
The suspected poacher, Lucas Muluzani Baloyi (65), who was accused of killing two white rhinos inside the KNP, formed part of the minority of suspects whom the authorities managed to arrest. However, due to a lack of hard, solid evidence and because of gross discrepancies in the testimonies of rangers, he walked out of court a free man.
Baloyi appeared in the Louis Trichardt Regional Court on Tuesday on one charge of theft, one of illegal activities in a special nature reserve, one of restricted activities involving threatened or protected species without a permit, and one charge of the illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition. He was arrested on June 14 last year, when six KNP rangers on patrol in Mbandweni, near the Vlakteplaas area in the park, allegedly caught him red-handed while he was hacking the horn from the carcass of a white rhino.
Evidence that was led in court suggested that two more rhino horns from another rhino were also found in Baloyi’s possession. The carcass of another rhino, with the horns removed, was found a stone throw away from where Baloyi was arrested. The four horns had an estimated value of R270 000, while the two rhinos that he had allegedly gunned down were valued at R700 000.
According to the rangers, Baloyi was wounded four times because he resisted arrest and started shooting at them. In his defense, Baloyi said that he was an innocent bystander on his way to Giyani to visit his wife.
The State evidence included, among others, an expert affidavit of Mr Johannes van Rooyen regarding the .375 Winchester rifle and spent cartridges that were recovered during Baloyi’s arrest. The State also provided DNA-results from the four rhino horns that were recovered. According to these results, the rhino horns belonged to the respective carcasses of the two rhinos.
On Tuesday, Baloyi’s advocate asked the court to dismiss the charges against him, due to the lack of sufficient evidence. “Evidence brought before this court is of such a poor quality that no reasonable person can accept it,” argued advocate Thabo Malatji.
In its verdict, the court sided with Malatji and pointed out that it was especially worried about evidence led by the park rangers. “They [the rangers] came up with their own explanations. Baloyi told them that there were other people with him and that they had left. Though it was never said by the accused, these rhinos might have been shot by the other people.”
Another inconsistency that the magistrate pointed out was the evidence regarding the firearm and cartridges. Evidence suggests that four shots were fired, but only two cartridges were found with the carcasses of the rhinos. “What happened to the other cartridges? But what is interesting, is that the cartridge that was found on the scene was not fired from the same gun.”
The court found this to be a curious fact because both rhinos were shot with different .375s; incidentally, these are the very same calibre guns that KNP rangers are equipped with. “That a rifle might have been planted on him [Baloyi] cannot be excluded,” said the court.
All charges against Baloyi were dropped and he was warned rather to visit the park as a tourist.
The head of public relations and communication of the KNP, Mr William Mabasa, was approached for comment. By the time of going to press, he was still not able to provide feedback because he still had to gather all the relevant information.