Rhino industry insiders in the dock
JOHANNESBURG––Startling photos of the September 22, 2010 arraignment of 11 alleged members of an international rhino poaching syndicate reached the world despite the officially unexplained efforts of police to keep photographers out.
News photographers Werner Beukes of the South African Press Agency, Herman Verwey of Beeld, and Lewellyn Carstens of the South African Broadcasting Corporation were detained for 45 minutes and one of them was roughed up by police, according to the South African National Editors Forum. No motive for the police action was offered.
The photos showed, standing in the Limpopo dock, not poor villagers, hundreds of whom died when shoot-to-kill orders were issued across much of Africa to protect rhinos and elephants in the late 1980s, but rather several affluent and well-connected land-owning white Afrikaners.
Among them were Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris operator Dawie Groenewald, his wife Sariette Groenewald, professional hunter Tielman Erasmus, veterinarian Karel Toet, his wife Marisa Toet, veterinarian Manie du Plessis, and five alleged co-conspirators. Suspected of killing rhinos to sell the horns to Chinese and Vietnamese brokers, the Groenewalds in particular were known to have business relationships with Safari Club International and infuential members of the Robert Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, which has aggressively courted Chinese investment.
Released on bail
All 11 suspects were released on bail by Musina magistrate Errol Luiters. They were scheduled to reappear in court on April 11, 2011 to face charges of assault, fraud, corruption, malicious damage to property, illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, and contravening the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act, according to RhinoConservation.org.
Joseph Okori, African rhino program chief for the World Wildlife Fund, worried to News24 of Johannesburg that the defendants would leave South Africa to evade prosecution. “If you have professionals involved who can transport rhino horn outside of the country in only a few days, you’re talking about access to helicopters and high-powered rifles,” Okori pointed out. “Despite bail conditions that include handing in their passports and identity documents, the chances remain high that this group has the connections and financial means that would allow them to escape,” Okori warned.
Also arraigned on September 22, 2010, in Nelspruit Magistrate’s Court for allegedly supplying weapons to Mozambican rhino poachers operating in Kruger National Park, was Petros Fernando Byrne. Various South African media disclosed court appearances elsewhere by three of Byrne’s alleged codefendants, who were caught within Kruger National Park. Times Live reported that one of them, Leonard Mashego was injured and hospitalized under police guard after a shoot-out with law enforcement.
Byrne has also been linked to a smuggling syndicate operated in Mozambique by Chinese and Vietnamese nationals, reported J.P. du Plessis of iAfrica.com in Cape Town. Meanwhile, two men one from China and one from Mozambique are preparing to apply for bail in Limpopo, after they were caught in possession of a rhino horn.
Those two individuals were not named to media, but the National Prosecuting Authority also named as defendants in rhino poaching cases George Clayton Fletcher of Sandhurst Safaris and Gerhardus Bartlomeus Saaiman of Saaiman Hunting Safaris, along with two other Afrikaner codefendants. Arrested earlier in 2010, these four suspects were reportedly to go to trial in North Gauteng High Court on October 11, 2010. Fletcher was allegedly found in possession of $135,000 in cash and 12 unlicensed firearms.
The string of September 2010 arrests of alleged rhino poachers may have begun with the apprehension of four indigenous 19 and 20-year-olds––three men and a woman––from Mbejeka village in Elukwatini. The men were reportedly caught with jacklights and ammunition as they tried to enter the Songimvelo Game Reserve, near Barberton. They were said by police to have hidden rifles in a nearby cemetery.
Summarized RhinoConservation.org, “One of the three suspects, Lucky Maseko, is already wanted in KwaZulu-Natal for involvement in an organized crime syndicate that specializes in killing rhinos. The poachers are also believed to be responsible for the kidnapping and assault of another poaching syndicate member, whom they thought was a police informant. The man was severely beaten and dumped at the roadside near Badplaas. It is believed that the man’s assailants assumed he would die of his injuries before being found. Instead, he survived and provided the authorities with valuable rhino poaching intelligence.”
The willingness of South African authorities to pursue rhino poaching cases was meanwhile called into question when on September 6, 2010, the Lephalale Magistrate’s Court in Limpopo released on bail five alleged rhino poachers, all of indigenous ancestry, even as a Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency internal report alleged that “two of the agency s own top officials are part of the syndicate… responsible for the poaching in our parks/reserves.”
Reported Sydney Masinga of the African Eye News Service, “Agency chief executive Charles Ndabeni implicated chief operating officer Edward Thwala and provident fund official Bheki Malaza. Ndabeni also claims that he and two other employees, project specialist Dries Pienaar and general manager of wildlife protection services Jan Muller, were targets of a planned robbery of the agency s ivory and rhino-horn stockpile.”
Responded Thwala, “I have already informed the [agency] that I am taking legal action against them.”
More than 600 rhinos have been poached in South Africa since 2007, including at least 210 in 2010 more than in 2000-2007 combined. More than 70 alleged rhino poachers have been arrested in South Africa since the onslaught began, but so far the arrests have not slowed the pace of killing. A possible 211th rhino victim––a pregnant cow rhino––was found dead on a farm bordering the Dawie Groenwald farm on September 27, 2010, but her horn had not been removed.
“Groenewald, a former police official, was suspended from the South African Professional Hunters Association four years ago,” reported Julian Rademeyer and Marietie Louw-Carstens of Beeld. “Groenewald was arrested in the U.S. in April this year in connection with a leopard trophy which was illegally hunted in South Africa and exported to the U.S.,” Rademeyer and Louw-Carstens continued. “He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a fine of $30,000. He spent eight days in prison, plus over two months under house arrest, and had to pay $7,500 in damages to the American hunter.”
Rademeyer and Louw-Carstens noted that “Groenewald’s Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris advertises hunting safaris in Botswana, Tanzania, South Africa, and even Zimbabwe,” though “the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority forbade them from entering the country in September 2004. Hunting experts in Zimbabwe allege that Out of Africa has strong links with politicians close to President Robert Mugabe,” Rademeyer and Louw-Carstens wrote.
Observed Joshua Hammer of Newsweek in a January 2006 exposé, “Debate swirls around Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris. Founded by four former South African policemen and based in both South Africa and Overland Park, Kansas,” Hammer explained, Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris “has done a brisk business taking American clientele to hunt on several ranches that, according to industry watchdogs in Zimbabwe, were seized by ZANU-PF activists.”
Most flagrant violator
Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force founder Johnny Rodrigues told Hammer that Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris was the most “flagrant violator of hunting laws in the country. “
Noting that Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris would “set up its usual booth at the Safari Club International convention” the next week, Hammer concluded that finding the full truth of the company”s activities would “require a real hunting expedition.”
Following the money
The money in rhino poaching appears to have soared at about the same time the U.S. recession reduced the numbers of American trophy hunters. A hint at the prices that may be paid for the horns of poached rhinos came from a September 2010 antique auction in Sydney, Australia. “A rhino horn sold for $90,000 and a Javan rhino trophy head fetched a surprising $108,000; a pair of bull elephant tusks sold for $96,000,” reported the Sydney Morning Herald.
“A growing middle class in East Asian society can afford to buy rhino horn,” World Wildlife Fund spokesperson Okori told News24.
Cancer cure rumor
“There have been claims from Vietnamese politicians that they have been cured from cancer,” said Endangered Wildlife Trust chief executive Yolan Friedman to Joceyln Newmarch of Business Day in Johannesburg. “It has nothing to do with aphrodisiacs.”
“These people do not use rhino horn as an aphrodisiac,” agreed Tom Milliken, spokesperson for the WWF subsidiary TRAFFIC, displaying images of rhino horn and elephant ivory objects taken from a Vietnamese web site. “This is organized crime,” Milliken emphasized, “by Asian-run, African-based criminal syndicates.”
“Each wave of economic advancement in East Asia has resulted in a concerted attack on Africa’s wildlife,” observed Suzie Watts of the British-based group Co-Habitat.
Historically the major markets for poached elephant ivory have been in Asia, including China and Vietnam, but poached African rhino horn was believed to have been trafficked mainly to oil-rich nations of the Middle East for use in making ceremonial dagger handles. South African police realized that the trade had changed when two Vietnamese suspects were caught at the O.R. Tambo International Airport while trying to smuggle four rhino horns to Vietnam and China.”
Professional Hunters Association
In March 2008 the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa alerted the South African government that Vietnamese ivory buyers posing as hunters were shooting white rhinos on high-priced legal hunting safaris and taking advantage of a loophole in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species which allows hunters to export rhino horn trophies to their home nations. The Professional Hunters Association was worried that abuse of the loophole might lead to it being closed.
In November 2008 a Vietnamese diplomat was recalled from South Africa after a South African Broadcasting Corporation hidden camera videotaped her in the apparent act of buying poached rhino horn outside the Vietnamese embassy.
Andrew Malone of the London Daily Mail in August 2009 exposed further particulars of the traffic in rhino horn from southern Africa to Asia by posing as a rhino horn buyer. Malone identified the ringleader of a poaching gang called The Crocodile Gang as Emmerson Mnangagwa, founder of the Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Office and a rumored possible successor to Robert Mugabe as Zimbabwean president. Malone described a rhino being shot repeatedly during a 12-hour pursuit to fill an order from a Chinese buyer who had offered £3,2000 per kilogram for rhino horn more than $12,000 per pound.
The Malone exposé appeared shortly after a police roadblock reportedly caught a Chinese man carrying six bloody rhino horns. The Chinese man reportedly implicated Mnangagwa and Zimbabwe media and information minister Webster Shamu. Thereafter the police officer who discovered the ivory was said to have disappeared, along with his report, while the Chinese suspect was escorted to Harare International Airport and allowed to fly home with the rhino horns.
Rhino poaching exploded in South Africa as rhino became scarcer and more closely guarded in Zimbabwe.
Rhino & Lion Park owner Ed Hern told Sky News in July 2010 that he had begun injecting cyanide into the horns of his rhinos, after losing two to poachers two months earlier. If someone in China eats it and gets violently sick, they are not going to buy it again, Hern told Tim Edwards of The First Post.
Warned Faan Coetzee of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, via Victoria John of the South African Press Agency, “If someone died, you could be arrested for murder.”
A bogus news report from a fictitious newspaper called the Bangkok Star claimed on August 18, 2010 that a death due to poisoned rhino horn had already occurred.