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Rhino poachers lose appeal in NC High Court

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Three rhino poachers who were convicted of murder, after one of their accomplices was killed when they illegally entered the country, were recently refused leave to appeal in the Northern Cape High Court.

File picture: Reuters, Mike Hutchings

THREE rhino poachers who were convicted of murder, after one of their accomplices was killed when they illegally entered the country, were recently refused leave to appeal in the Northern Cape High Court.

The trio – David Mitswi, Khetamile Cooper and Tebo Mogare – were sentenced to 36 years imprisonment for murder, the illegal possession of a prohibited firearm and ammunition, illegally entering the country and hunting a protected species without a permit on Barrage farm near Kuruman.

Another trespasser, KJ Matshetse, died of a gunshot to the back, while he also sustained a bullet wound to the leg.

Mogare was also shot during the incident.

The three applicants, who are Botswana citizens, admitted that they crossed the border between South Africa and Botswana on April 19, 2020, without any passports.

They explained that they had entered South Africa in search of work, by crawling through a hole in the border fence, as well as entering through an unlocked gate.

A farm worker, Steven Teleko, discovered a gap in the fence of the wildlife camp and four sets of human tracks, where attempts were made to sweep the footprints away.

At the time, there were 12 rhinos housed inside the wildlife camp.

Teleko had alerted the farm owner, Danie Pretorius, who sought the assistance of the Tswalu anti-poaching unit, a helicopter and the police to apprehend the intruders.

During the search, Teleko noticed a rhino with a bullet wound to the shoulder, although its horn was still intact.

Other farm workers, who were sent out to be on the lookout for the four poachers in the wildlife camp, heard multiple gunshots and were threatened by the armed intruders.

A quick response team for the protection of endangered species found a hunting rifle with a silencer, four backpacks, a panga believed to be used to strike the rhino’s spine to weaken it, an axe that was typically used to remove the rhino horn and an old handgun in the possession of the poachers.

The police matched the shoe prints of the three men and the deceased to the prints of the intruders on the farm.

State prosecutor Jacque Rosenburg stated that the three men acted with common purpose when they entered the farm to illegally hunt the rhino.

He stated that not only were weapons found in their possession but that they had removed the serial number of the .458 rifle.

“Mitswi had a live round for this firearm and the other was spent when shooting the rhino and injuring it. On the murder charge, the accused, acting with common purpose, decided to hunt a rhinoceros armed with weapons – an airgun and a .458 rifle. When the deceased was killed, the accused were all together.”

The legal representative for Mitswi, Roelof van Wyk, argued that his client never foresaw that anyone would be killed when they entered the farm.

“They were not prepared for a violent confrontation and were only in possession of two rounds,” said Van Wyk.

Cooper’s legal representative, advocate Pieterse, pointed out that his client had never anticipated that a shoot-out or crossfire would ensue.

The legal representative for Mogare, Obatlile Maroke, stated that his client did not know that the others were carrying firearms and ammunition and therefore could not be held accountable for the shot that killed the deceased.

Acting Judge Cordelia Kgopa believed that the farm owner, farm managers, game rangers and rhino camp workers acted to protect the rhino, which is classified as an endangered species.

“After being pointed with a rifle, they felt threatened, especially after the farm workers also reported a shot fired in their direction and the direction where the rhino was in the camp. They retaliated by shooting with their rifles.”

Kgopa dismissed the application and stated that while compelling arguments were presented by the defence, the appellants failed to prove that the appeal would have a reasonable prospect of success.

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