By Hailey Gaunt

It’s a watershed moment for wildlife and wildlife crime prosecution in South Africa. Last week in the country’s Eastern Cape Province, one of the most notorious and slippery criminal rhino-poaching rings, the Ndlovu Gang, was finally brought to justice after years of evasion.

‘Guilty’, was the resounding judgment delivered by the regional High Court to Jabulani Ndlovu, Sibusiso Ndlovu and Forget Ndlovu. The trio, who are unrelated, were implicated on 55 counts in 10 separate poaching incidents during a three-year poaching spree. They will be sentenced in April and face long jail terms.

The case pivoted around the events of a single night in June 2016, when the men were apprehended at a resort outside Makhanda. It was not far from Bucklands Private Game Reserve, where a white rhino had been murdered and de-horned. Found in their possession were 10 kilos of rhino horn (worth over $70 000 on the black market), tools, tranquilizers, a dart gun, saw and a knife.

Their arrest was the result of a long-coordinated effort between private reserves and South African Police Services, called ‘Operation Full Moon’.

The verdict is a win for conservationists and a humble, but satisfying, victory for the endangered species. It establishes a clear precedent in the handling and prosecuting of wildlife criminality.

Evidence in the case matched DNA from the rhino at Bucklands to the saw discovered with the gang at their arrest. A forensic paint specialist confirmed the match of a paint chip from the saw’s handle to one found at the scene of the crime.

The net result amounts to more than the punishment of horrific acts against a severely endangered species, it also gives confidence to stakeholders in game and wildlife management and eco-tourism who dread the extreme financial and emotional risk of harboring rhino. It states unequivocally: they are stewards of a precious species. A ruling like this could shift the trajectory of this endangered animal.