Rhino syndicate ‘ringleader’ arrested
By Julian Rademeyer
I first met Hugo Ras in April 2012 in the corridor of the Pretoria North Regional Court. I’d heard the dark tales that swirled around him and stories about the numerous run-ins he’d had with the law. But, as he boasted, few of the cases ever stuck.
Now, more than two-and-half years later, Ras is accused of being the “ringleader” of a poaching syndicate that “contributed to the brutal slaughter and mutilation of 24 rhino in state and privately-owned reserves”. Two rhino survived, both horribly disfigured.
Ras was picked up on Friday, 19 September by members of the Hawks – the South African Police’s Directorate of Priority Crimes Investigation – in front of the same court building where I’d first crossed paths with him. At the time of his arrest Ras was appearing in another poaching-related case; one has been dragging on since 2011.
Simultaneously, nine other suspects were arrested in four provinces. According to police, they included his wife Trudie, his brother Anton, a Pretoria attorney who represented him, Joseph Wilkinson, a game capture pilot, Bonnie Steyn, and, significantly, a warrant officer in the Hawks, Willie Oosthuizen.
The syndicate members are alleged to have obtained at least 84 rhino horns and sold them to dealers in Southeast Asia and Vietnam. Aside from the 41 horns obtained in the poaching incidents, at least 14 horns are alleged to have been stolen from a government building.
The ten suspects are expected to face numerous counts of theft, fraud, damage to property (related to the killing and mutilation of rhinos), racketeering, money-laundering, intimidation and illegal possession of firearms and ammunition when they go on trial.
According to an article written by The Citizen newspaper’s Alex Mitchley, 22 of the rhino targeted by the syndicate were darted with M99, a powerful anaesthetic related to morphine. Two others were shot.
The case has been postponed to 29 September.
Here’s an extract from Killing for Profit that deals with Ras:
In August 2011 a disgraced safari company owner, Hugo Ras, was arrested in a police raid on his three-storey home in Magalieskruin in northern Pretoria.
During a search, investigators found an unlicensed firearm and large quantities of M99, a powerful anaesthetic that is widely used in game capture and also to dart rhinos. The drug– which is 3 000 times more potent than morphine – is fatal to humans, and its distribution is meant to be strictly controlled.
Police had obtained a warrant on the basis that they wanted to question Ras about the murder of a Russian stripper, Lana Muratava. She had disappeared late one night in November 2010 and was last seen alive with a man in a white Land Cruiser. Her corpse was discovered days later in a ditch next to a road in Hammanskraal. There were claims that she had been killed with M99, but early tabloid press reports suggested that the back of her skull had been repeatedly bashed in. Other rumours alleged she had been strangled.
Ras was charged, but not for the murder. He and seven others, including three veterinarians, faced provisional charges of contravening the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act over the illegal distribution of M99.
I met Ras outside the Pretoria North Magistrate’s Court in April 2012. He was in a chatty mood. The case had been postponed again and charges against five of his co-accused had been dropped. He believed the case was crumbling. He denied any knowledge of Muratava’s death.
‘The girl was an interpreter for me when I had Russian clients on my farm.’ The clients, he said, invariably ‘wanted an interpreter and also a girl to f***. I decided to make a plan and get a girl who interprets and screws. She makes more money and there is one less person in the Land Cruiser when we go out hunting. That is the only f***ing connection I had with her. I never touched her. The stories that people think up are like Isidingo, The Wild, Sewende Laan and Binnelanders [local television soap operas] all rolled into one.’
It wasn’t the first time that Ras had fallen foul of the law. In 2000 and 2001, he was arrested for various contraventions of nature conservation and customs regulations and fined. In 2004, the Mail & Guardian newspaper revealed that a bull elephant Ras had purchased from the Kruger National Park had been hunted by a Texan oil magnate within hours of its arrival on a game farm near Rustenburg in North West. Gavin Hulett, a park warden, told the paper that four bull elephants had been sold to Ras on condition that they would not be hunted. Ras claimed the bull was shot after it broke out of camp.
A year later he was back in the news, this time charged with murder after a contractor working on his farm was attacked and killed by a lion. The charge was eventually dropped. The same year, Ras was fined for assault. The day I spoke to him outside court, he boasted about his numerous run-ins with police and the courts, saying the charges rarely stuck.