Timber thieves were apprehended by Canine Security in the Merensky plantations near Modjadjiskloof this week.
Timber thieves were apprehended by Canine Security in the Merensky plantations near Modjadjiskloof this week.

Five timber thieves were arrested, and their vehicle impounded on Tuesday through the quick reaction of Canine Security and the Modjadjiskloof police. According to Marius Jacobs, owner of Canine Security, his team had been watching the group of thieves for three days until they finally pounced on them on them as they attempted to drive a truckload of stolen timber out of the Duiwelskloof Merensky plantation.

“We have always had a major struggle with these criminals, especially in the plantations bordering the Makgoba village. In the past two years or so we managed to apprehend a number of these small gangs, but each time we remove a few of them out of the system, a new group takes their place,” he said. “We watched these five guys for three days as they attempted to drive the truck out of the plantation, but failed due to the wet weather. They eventually moved the timber to a more suited spot, drove the truck into the plantation and loaded their haul. That’s when we pounced. The police were extremely quick in their reaction and we received all the backup from Colonel Machette who was at the scene personally.”

The five suspects were arrested by the Modjadjiskloof police by order of the station commander, Col Machette who was at the scene personally. The flatbed truck used in the theft was ceized by the asset forfeiture unit. The vehicle is owned by one of the suspects – an individual who works at a tyre retailer in Tzaneen and rents his truck out as a side-line. This modus operandi is awfully familiar among the timber theft syndicates, who hardly ever use their own vehicles.

The five suspects arrested for possession of 350 poles cut illegally from the Merensky plantation, included three Zimbabwean citizens, in South Africa illegally.

A Zimbabwean national, considered to be the kingpin behind the local timber theft industry, evaded arrest for a year by renting out flatbed trucks to “clients” and later, when the suspects were caught in his trucks loaded with stolen timber, claimed plausible deniability. He would claim that he was unaware for what purposes the trucks were being rented and that he had no knowledge of, or involvement in the timber theft business. At one point, in 2017, there were a total of three cases against this man at the Haenertsburg police station and his trucks were involved in nine separate incidents. It was only later when Canine Security caught him in the plantations, that he was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison in 2018.

In 2017 another Zimbabwean national, Carlos Pamire, was arrested for possession of stolen property after he was caught with 480 poles, he stole off the Barett’s farm, Carthona in Modjadjiskloof in July of that year. He was sentenced to two years in prison. It is believed that both the suspects arrested between 2017 and 2018, have since been released after completion of their sentences.

The truck was stopped in the plantation by the Canine Security response team. It was loaded with illegally harvested poles. Photo: Supplied.

Bulletin has been reporting extensively on the fight against timber thieves in the plantations outside Tzaneen. In 2017 we were part of the formation of the Tzaneen Timber Theft Forum (TTTF) which was a structure that consisted of various foresters and plantation owners all the way from Soekmekaar to Haenertsburg and Modjadjiskloof. Canine Security, the Haenertsburg SAPS and the Department of Justice was also involved in the forum. It worked extremely well and dealt a decisive blow to the timber theft industry until it simply ran out of steam and disbanded sometime in 2019.

At the height of the timber theft wave which has hit the area extremely hard, foresters were reporting losses of more than R450 000 in just a single week. Those are crippling statistics fuelled by demand from the Indian hardware traders in the townships and villages who pay between R40 and R60 per pole from these syndicates. The timber gangs receive an order for a 100 or so poles, rent a truck and enter a plantation at night. Once there, they cut down the young trees of between four and six years of age. This impacts long-term on the plantation itself as in some cases entire blocks are wiped out before reaching their optimum age of nine to 12 years.

The police explained in 2017 that they did not have a charge for timber theft and so the suspects received relatively light sentences as they were charged for suspicion of stolen property, or theft common. We are not sure whether the charge of “timber theft” has in the meantime been registered.

The five suspects arrested this week, included two Zimbabwean citizens, illegally in South Africa. This has led to speculation among the security industry circles, that the same two men who were arrested in 2017 and 2018, might again be involved in the crimes. Two of the suspects were locals, one of whom was the owner of the truck and the other, the driver.

We have received information that the driver and the owner were not taken into custody, but have to appear in court on the same charges as the three Zimbabwean nationals who are currently being kept in the police cells.