US national arrested in South Africa on wildlife trafficking, weapons charges


A U.S. national has been arrested in South Africa on wildlife trafficking and firearms charges, South African authorities have announced.

Derek Lewitton, a Texan, was arrested Dec. 22 following a raid on his Harmony Gate Estate ranch in Limpopo Province by the South African Police Services’ Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI) units.

Limpopo Police spokesman Brigadier Hlulani Mashaba said authorities discovered 26 rhinoceros carcasses at Lewitton’s ranch and 10 unmarked rhino horns in a safe, as well as seven allegedly illegal firearms and “hundreds of rounds of ammunition” in an hours-long operation following a police tip-off.

“From the helicopter the place looked like a slaughterhouse,” said Provincial Commissioner of Police Major General Jan Scheepers, describing the scene. “Everywhere you looked, rhinos were lying there dead.”

Investigations are underway into the circumstances at the ranch that led to the animals’ deaths, according to Scheepers, who also said there are likely to be “many more” carcasses on the property.

Derek Lewitton and his wife, Xenja Lewitton, are founders of Black Rock Rhino, a private conservation organization that states its “objective is to save all rhino species from extinction, and to breed them back to healthy populations,” according to its website.

A rhinoceros wakes up after being darted to fit new anti poaching measures at Buffalo Kloof game reserve, April 5, 2023, outside Gqeberha, South Africa.Michele Spatari/AFP via Getty Images, FILE
A rhinoceros wakes up after being darted to fit new anti poaching measures at Buffalo Kloof game reserve, April 5, 2023, outside Gqeberha, South Africa. Michele Spatari/AFP via Getty Images.

“Across South Africa, dedicated families like ours continue to put everything they have into providing rhino with the safe habitat they need to thrive, and these families are succeeding,” the website says. “While rhino numbers in government-managed reserves have plummeted by 90% in the past 10 years, the families who keep rhino safe on private reserves have more than tripled their rhino populations – growing the 3,000 rhino they protected 10 years ago into an estimated 10,500 rhino today.”

Derek Lewitton appeared Wednesday in Namakgale Magistrate’s Court in Limpopo and was formally charged with alleged wildlife trafficking and firearms offenses. He is also charged under South Africa’s National Environmental Management Act for his alleged possession of, and restricted activities with, rhino horn specimens. Officials said Lewitton will remain in custody until a bail hearing scheduled for Jan. 3.

Black Rock Rhino did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment about Lewitton’s arrest.

This article by Emma Ogao was first published by ABC News on 29 December 2023. Lead Image: Orphaned rhinos in South Africa under threat. Over the past decade, rhino numbers have decreased dramatically in South Africa due to poaching. Some nature conservatories are on a mission to save the animals before it is too late.

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