LEPHALALE — The 55 year old Antonio Xavier (Tony) Freitas, a well-known businessman and co-owner of Bosveld Sentra in Lephalale, was arrested at Ringbult farm in Steenbokpan on Friday 27 January for the illegal hunting of specially protected wild animals, possession of rhino horn (although not found on the premises), the selling of body parts of specially protected wild animals and possession of parts of specially protected animals without a permit.
The police were following up information about seven rhinos that were allegedly killed and dehorned on this farm in November 2016. It is alleged the rhinos were brought to the farm by means of trucks and then slaughtered there. Witnesses said in their statements that the horns were loaded into a red helicopter that then took off with them.
The police, under the leadership of Warrant Officer Jurg van Heerden of a special rhino task team in Limpopo, together with other security staff, pounced on the farm after obtaining a search warrant. Van Heerden says they discovered eight rhino feet and eight bags of meat; all packed in a cold room. They found seven rhino tails and two rhino hides hanging on a wall in the salt room with smaller pieces of rhino hides on the floor. Van Heerden says that with the help of members of Nature Conservation, he took DNA samples and photos of all the body parts discovered. Two rhino skulls as well as dry skin were also lying around (it seemed to be dry and old as there was no meat left on it).
Hides, small pieces of meat and some toe nails were also discovered buried elsewhere on the farm after being pointed out by two of the farm workers. A front end loader was parked inside a huge store room that was allegedly used in the burying of the evidence.
Freitas appeared in Lephalale Magistrate’s Court on Monday 30 January and Tuesday 31 January for a formal bail application on the five charges against him.
Van Heerden pleaded that the seriousness of the crime is a huge concern as the whole world expects bail to be opposed in any case of rhino poaching. He said some serious questions have still not been answered. He furthermore argued that the witnesses in this case (being some of the workers on the farm) are afraid of Freitas and if bail is granted, there is also a risk of the witnesses being influenced or intimidated and he cannot allow that. “The people out there and the farmers are furious about rhino poaching and I cannot assure his safety if he is granted bail” Van Heerden concluded.
Etienne Rossouw, as legal representative for the accused, Tony Freitas, pleaded that there are two types of rhino poaching and that people are mad about the poaching and slaughtering of animals, not about a man shooting his own rhinos on his own farm. “That is not rhino poaching. There is a difference between what Freitas has been charged with and rhino poaching” he said. Van Heerden replied that the rhinos were brought to Ringbult unlawfully and were shot without a permit. “If a rhino is moved from one place to another, it will be investigated by Nature Conservation. There was no control” Van Heerden replied.
Rossouw stated the possibility that the horns could also be buried with other body parts. “There is a possibility that the horns were not sold but rather buried” he said. Van Heerden emphasized the fact that the horns are still not found and the origin of the rhinos are not known and he says the only person who can answer these questions in court is Mr Freitas himself.
Police members together with a forensic team will do a thorough search of the farm and other identified places where the horns could possibly be buried and further evidence of how many rhinos were hidden in the holes will be investigated on Friday 3 February.
On Wednesday 1 February judge Amia Eckard granted bail to Freitas to the amount of R250 000 with certain conditions: he may not enter the farm where the alleged crime was committed; he may not interfere with or intimidate any witnesses; he may only enter the lodge area on the farm which is in a confined area; he is not allowed to leave the Lephalale Municipal area without notifying the investigation officer.
The investigation continues and the case is postponed to 2 March 2017.