Daily Dispatch (South Africa)

Experts testify in rhino poaching trial

FOR the first time ever, South African Police Services ballistic experts say they have developed tests that link tranquilliser darts from various rhino poaching crime scenes to a dart gun seized by police.

This emerged in evidence in the criminal court case of three Zimbabwean men – Jabulani Ndlovu, 40, Forget Ndlovu, 37, and Sikhumbuzo Ndlovu, 38, – who face 50 charges related to the poaching of 13 rhino throughout the Eastern Cape over the past five years.

The .22 Marlin bolt action firearm which had been modified as a dart gun was seized in a raid by police on a chalet at the Makana Resort in Grahamstown in June 2016 shortly after a white rhino had been poached at nearby Bucklands Game Reserve.

The state alleges in the indictment that the three men were caught red-handed in the raid with a 10.27kg freshly harvested rhino horn valued at R1-million, a bloody saw, the dart gun and tranquilliser darts, M99 tranquilliser, cellphones and SIM cards.

Captain Gideon Olivier, who has conducted thousands of ballistics tests in a long career in the police, yesterday explained to the court that most dart guns had shotgun barrels which were entirely smooth and did not leave 100% individualised marks on the darts.

This meant that they could never say whether or not a particular dart came from a particular gun.

However, in this case the rifle had a grooved barrel.

He had fired five test darts from the seized dart gun to ascertain if he could identify unique markings on the darts.

The rifle had imparted socalled “lands and grooves” on the plastic part of the dart which, he said, could be 100% individualised.

He confirmed during cross examination by the counsel for the three accused, advocate Terry Price SC, that the procedure linking darts to a specific dart gun was novel.

“As far as we know this is the first time in South Africa that this has been done but the whole procedure is exactly the same as one would ordinarily do except for the fact that the bullet in this instance is a tranquilliser dart.”

In earlier evidence, the state began tying together cellphone usage and ownership, which it says puts the three men in the vicinity of some 10 poaching incidents across the province involving 13 rhino.

An investigator and analyst with the Rhino Security Unit, Carmen van Tichelen, said cellphone handsets she linked to Jabulani and Sikhumbuzo had come up in a 2014 investigation she had been involved with in KwaZulu-Natal.

In the course of the probe, they had looked at gate records of certain affected national parks.

Jabulani’s name and number had been on the gate record of one, along with a car licence plate.

They had traced the car registration to a car hire company whose records showed cell numbers they had further linked to the social media account of Sikhumbuzo and his spouse.

Although a different surname had been used on Sikhumbuzo’s social media accounts, he had featured in many of the photographs.