A courtroom was hurriedly evacuated in White River this week during the bail hearing of the man called the “Mr Big” at the centre of rhino poaching in Kruger National Park, after someone in the gallery threatened to shoot.
Details are unclear about what happened, but the police tactical response team was called in to clear the area.
Petrus Sydney Mabuza, 49, has been accused of being the kingpin in Kruger rhino poaching.
“He is the crucial point of receiving and distributing rhino horn,” testified police Colonel Johan Jooste.
The courtroom was packed with more than 100 of Mabuza’s supporters. They listened intently as Jooste described the steps leading to one of the most monumental arrests in the war on poaching.
He placed on record that Mabuza’s involvement in rhino poaching activities was first suspected in 2005. Since then, the name “Mr Big” would pop up during many a police investigation.
In 2017, Lowvelder reported that a discarded coolbox containing rhino horns was found outside a Hazyview residence. No arrests were made at the time but the coolbox case became one of many threads leading the Hawks to Mabuza’s doorstep.
“Mr Big” sat next to three others: his co-accused Nozwelo Mahumane, Moshe Thobela and Romance Khoza. Apart from stating that they were co-accused in this case, senior state advocate Vernon Nemaorani did not say much about them.
The focus was on Mabuza, who periodically shook his head.
Through his legal representative, he denied having committed any crime and indicated his intention to plead not guilty to the six charges levelled against him.
Jooste testified that intelligence obtaining evidence linking the seemingly squeaky clean businessman to acts of poaching had required patience, skillful investigations, strategy and an undercover operation.
Nemaorani pressed Jooste on how the arrest came about.
“Information was reported to our office by a private person with access to informers. The man identified ‘Mr Big’ as a rhino horn buyer from Hazyview,” Jooste stated. According to his source, Mabuza could not resist to get his hands on horns with a black market value of R120 000 per kilogram.
The Directory of Priority Crimes Investigation (DPCI, also known as the Hawks) obtained a warrant authorising an undercover operation. Informants and undercover policemen contacted “Mr Big”, who was willing to trade in horns.
“A total of R280 000 was received,” recalled Jooste. Although Mabuza paid only R280 000, a statement from SANParks’ Environmental Crime Investigations Unit indicated the horns’ value was R900 000.
The horns were placed in a white BMW, allegedly driven by Thobela. The car’s details were passed on to members of the N4 Highway Patrol who pulled the vehicle off between Middelburg and eMalahleni.
Meanwhile, warrants authorised the Hawks to search Mabuza’s two Hazyview homes and Jooste made his way to Mr Big’s house in Elawini Lifestyle Estate in Mbombela.
“I was joined by other members and we gained permission to search his vehicle. Three nine-millimetre rounds and a bundle of South African identity documents and Sassa cards were found,” Jooste recorded.
All in all, the searches at the various premises produced a high-calibre hunting rifle, a rifle with a filed-off serial number, a silencer and bank cards. According to Jooste, Mabuza is a high-ranking player in the poaching syndicate.
“He is a typical level-three operator with total control of his operations and how they are conducted,” he said.
He explained that Mabuza used lower-placed individuals to kill rhinos, remove their horns and transport them to him without being detected.
Outside the courtroom, a source close to the investigation speculated that “Mr Big” may be behind up to 70% of poaching in the Kruger.
The bail hearing was postponed to July 3.