After more than 20 delays to his trial, alleged Zululand rhino horn kingpin Dumisani Gwala has stepped into the dock for charges related to the “epidemic” butchery of rhinos in KwaZulu-Natal.
Gwala arrived at the Mtubatuba Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday in a white Mercedes after a local magistrate had signalled her displeasure over a series of lengthy delays to the start of a trial which has been marked by frequent changes to defence attorneys.
Gwala, currently represented by attorney Zwelonke Ngwenya who was sporting a neck-tie bearing the pattern of a US$100 bank note, pleaded not guilty to 12 charges relating to attempted murder; resisting arrest and either buying, possessing or attempting to trade rhino horns illegally.
His alleged accomplices, Wiseman Mageba and Aubrey Dlamini, have also pleaded not guilty to several charges of horn-trading or illegal possession charges dating back to 2014.
When the trial finally got under way this week, the first state witness said intelligence sources had fingered Gwala as the main target in an undercover police intelligence operation code-named “Project Racketeer”.
Former Hawks investigating officer Detective Warrant Officer Jean-Pierre van Zyl Roux said he had been involved in several investigations into the poaching of endangered, threatened or vulnerable wildlife species – “basically all wild animals which will not have a future unless we do our best to protect them”.
During 2014, as alarm grew over the “epidemic” level of rhino poaching in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park and other rhino sanctuaries in KZN, Van Zyl Roux collaborated with various police and wildlife sources to identify major roleplayers in rhino poaching in KZN.
“I received intelligence that there was a syndicate operating from the Manguze area in northern KZN, involved in the hunting and selling of rhino horn.”
He told the court that rhino horn criminal syndicates had a pyramid structure, with fixed leadership structures.
The bottom tier of the syndicate was made up of hunters, hunting guides and armed guards to protect the poachers.
The second tier comprised hunt organisers, transporters, traditional healers and game rangers who would help poachers with information and access to rhinos.
The third tier included transporters and middlemen who would facilitate access to the fourth tier made up of South African horn buyers located mainly in Johannesburg.
The top of the pyramid was made up of the “international big shots” in Vietnam and China who created the demand for rhino horn as a product.
The information he received indicated that Gwala was located in the third tier, acting as a middleman and co-ordinator.
In November 2014, Van Zyl Roux received information from an intelligence source indicating that he had been approached by Gwala with a request to supply him with rhino horns.
He then made an application to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions to authorise an undercover operation in terms of Section 252 of the Criminal Procedure Act.
This would involve introducing an agent to Gwala. The agent would then sell horns to the syndicate with the aim of confirming its activities and hopefully prevent further illegal hunting of rhinos.
However, Van Zyl Roux was unable to complete his testimony or be cross-examined yesterday after Gwala’s co-accused, Dlamini, said he was feeling ill and the matter was temporarily stood down.
Dlamini then lay down on a bench outside the court for several minutes.
When the matter resumed, Dlamini told his legal representative that he was battling to continue and requested that the hearing be adjourned to the following day.
State prosecutor Andre Symington said he had no objection to an adjournment in the circumstances, but expressed concern. “We don’t want a situation where there are possible grounds for a future appeal on the basis that the accused was possibly unable to concentrate or follow the proceedings.”
He suggested that it might become necessary for a doctor to examine Dlamini and provide the court with an independent assessment regarding his fitness to continue attending court.
The case was then adjourned until Thursday.
More than 7,000 rhinos have been poached nationwide since 2008. In KZN, horn poaching reached record levels during 2017, when at least 222 of these animals were killed by poachers.