South Africa

Poacher’s paradise: The terrifying underworld behind rhino horn trade

By Marelise Van Der Merwe 12 July 2016

A month ago, UN researchers said environmental crime was outpacing global GDP growth. Now, a new report calls the fight against rhino poaching an “unwinnable war”, fingering corrupt officials, a lack of interdepartmental and international co-operation, and exposing a deeply entrenched web of international crime syndicates linked to smuggling, identity fraud and human trafficking. It makes for explosive reading. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

South Africa, home to almost 80% of the rhino population on the African continent, is at the centre of the struggle against poaching. Over the past decade, over 6,000 rhino have fallen victim to poachers; about three a day. About 370 were poached in the first quarter of 2016 alone.

And, according to two new studies, crime syndicates are winning. With multiple casualties.

In the reports, written by journalist and rhino horn trade specialist Julian Rademeyer, NGO the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime described the networks trafficking rhino horn and other wildlife products as “ruthlessly efficient, imaginative, endlessly adaptive [and]… everything that the government bureaucracies and law enforcement agencies rallied against them are not.”

The struggle against poaching has shown “a number of critical weaknesses”, Rademeyer said. “The ‘war on poaching’ is increasingly being understood as an unwinnable war.”

The now

According to the report, rhino horn trade now rivals gold and platinum as a black market commodity. Indeed, by 2015 the horn itself was more valuable by weight than gold, diamonds or cocaine. It’s increasingly drawing the attention of some of the world’s most corrupt crime rings as the Next Big Thing.

The Kruger National Park, says Rademeyer, is the eye of the storm. It accounts for about 60% of the poaching incidents in South Africa over the past seven years.

Fighting in the trenches are some 400 field rangers, 22 section rangers and 15 special rangers, which equates to roughly one ranger per 47 square kilometres. “But that would only be the case if they worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In reality, less than half that number are deployed at any given time,” he writes. They are supported by 12 investigators and eight pilots (helicopter, fixed-wing and Bantam microlight). The rangers, in short, are overwhelmed. And rhino poaching – it’s becoming clearer – is not an environmental issue. It’s an international crime issue.

Currently, there are around 25,000 rhino left in Africa and just 5,200 black rhino (there were about 100,000 fifty years ago), with about 4,000 of the latter concentrated in South Africa and Namibia. Since 2010, over 1,700 suspected poachers have been arrested, with the NPA saying conviction rates range between 83% and 88%. But, says Rademeyer, conviction rates are not a reliable indication of the impact of arrests and convictions.

Slaughter is showing no signs of slowing down. “Despite the valiant efforts of many law enforcement and government officials, prosecutors and game rangers, the transnational criminal networks trafficking rhino horn are as resilient as ever and – with rare exceptions – impervious to attempts to disrupt their activities.”

The how

Whatever your picture of a poacher, dismiss it. According to the report, there are two misunderstood types of poachers: those at the bottom of the pyramid, undertaking hugely risky work out of financial desperation; and those standing – usually impervious – at the top of largely impenetrable international syndicates, employing a range of strategies to evade capture.

Of the former, Rademeyer explains: “Contrary to popular images of poaching gangs equipped with night sights, semi-automatic weapons and even helicopters, most poachers are poorly equipped for the bush… They enter the [Kruger] park in groups of three or four, usually at night with the moon behind them to light their way. One man will carry a rifle fitted with a silencer, a second an axe or machete and a third will have a few supplies – two-litre Coca Cola bottles filled with water from a river, a few tins of fish, and perhaps a loaf of bread crammed into a garishly coloured backpack. Sometimes one of them will be armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. In most cases they carry cellphones, but no radios or night vision equipment. They hunt in jeans and T-shirts. Some are barefoot or wear running shoes and sandals instead of boots.”

If people think of a poacher, in most cases they probably think of some sort of Special Forces guy,” head of the SANParks Environmental Crime Investigation Unit, Ken Maggs, told the GI Network. “The opposite is true.” Usually, he says, the poachers wait for daybreak; night hunting is unsuccessful and usually results only in wounding. Hunting is relentless – at any time there are up to 15 groups of poachers in the park. But the human price is high: up to 200 suspected poachers are believed to have been killed, and many others wounded, in clashes with rangers between 2010 and 2015. A number of SANDF soldiers and rangers, too, have been killed and injured. Fundisile Mketeni, the DEA’s deputy director-general for biodiversity and conservation and CEO of SANParks, says the “hatred [and] anger” is worrying. “But what do you expect our rangers to do when they come across armed poachers at night? I don’t think they want to die first.”

At the top of the food chain, things look a little different. For most, there’s less risk and more profit. The report names and shames a number of alleged kingpins, not least the notorious Dawie Groenewald of the “Groenewald Gang”, who has nearly 2,000 items on his charge sheet.

Groenewald, as it happens, is quite an outspoken source despite his reputation. Since 2003, say the reports, wildlife crime syndicates have tried to exploit legal trophy hunts of white rhino in South Africa in order to obtain horn for Asia’s illegal black markets. This “pseudo-hunting” was so popular by 2010/11 that it accounted for the majority of white rhino hunts in South Africa. Syndicates – like the infamous Xaysavang network – know that both black and white rhino can be hunted legally in small numbers, limited to a quota of five per year in South Africa and Namibia respectively and auctioned to the highest bidder. In 2013, say the reports, the average price of a white rhino trophy hunt was $74,000 – compared to $21,000 for a lion. The Xaysavang syndicate enlisted young Thai women – trafficked to work in strip clubs and massage parlours in South Africa – to pose as hunters. Their passports were used to apply for hunting permits and they were paid for a weekend away on a game farm. “Few women, if any,” writes Rademeyer, “ever fired a shot.”

Groenewald, for all his notoriety, admitted candidly in a 2011 interview that due to pseudo-hunting rhino hunting prices shot “through the roof. American hunters won’t pay that.”

It’s not just women who fell victim to direct human trafficking whose lives are at risk. In the Czech Republic, “white horses” are used in a smuggling ring operating between the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany, South Africa and Vietnam, say the reports. According to one informant – who allegedly shot a rhino on a farm belonging to Groenewald – he was paid 5,000 Czech Crowns and an airline ticket to go “on safari” to South Africa. He said he was told to shoot the rhino; when he deliberately missed, a sniper took over. White horses, according to the report, are recruited because they are desperate for money – and unlikely to be missed if they are dispensed with.

A further disturbing allegation involves diplomats with criminal involvement. A number of high-profile individuals have been caught in international organised crime, say the reports; notably a North Korean diplomat who took full advantage of the privilege of carrying a diplomatic bag that would not be searched; said diplomat was, no doubt unexpectedly, caught with close to $100,000 in cash and 4.5kg of rhino horn. “The privileges [of] the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic relations present a tantalising opportunity to commit a perfect crime,” Rademeyer puts it.

Vietnam’s diplomats have been caught no fewer than three times, points out Rademeyer; less well known, he writes, is the involvement of North Korean diplomatic missions in the illicit rhino horn and ivory trade. Disturbingly, North Korean embassy officials have been implicated in 16 of the 29 cases involving diplomats that have been identified in a variety of sources dating from 1986.

But – as many will remember – South Africa in 2014 opted not to take any stand against North Korea over continued human rights abuses that included mass murder, rape, torture and enslavement; the reports further point out that South Africa’s department of Environmental Affairs approved sales of various live animals to the Pyongyang Zoo in the same year. Rademeyer’s implication is clear: if a stand needs to be taken against North Korea, South Africa isn’t doing it.

Numerous other high-profile individuals come up in the reports: diamond tycoon Michael Chu, aka Chu ??ng Khoa; key player in the Vietnamese zoo Vinpearl Safari’s attempts to purchase white rhino, and head honcho at DKC Trading, which owns a 924ha farm in South Africa’s North West Province – where up to 50 tigers and several lions are kept in captivity, and at least three rhino hunts have taken place. “Aside from Chu ??ng Khoa, a number of key individuals linked to DKC Trading and Voi Lodge participated in alleged pseudo-hunts,” writes Rademeyer. A guide working at Voi Lodge vehemently denied the allegation.

Rhino poaching, the reports argue in the strongest terms, are not simply about rhino – it is deeply entrenched within organised crime internationally. But, says Rademeyer, although it was recently made a priority crime, in practice it still draws the short straw. “South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs was allocated a budget of just R5.9-billion for the 2015/16 financial year, less than 1% of the national government total.” SANParks received R278.6-million, but it administers 21 national parks, including the Kruger National Park.

The why

Like many of Southern Africa’s problems, rhino poaching and its related crimes are made possible to a large extent by corruption. “Borders, bureaucracy and a tangle of vastly different laws and legal jurisdictions are a boon to transnational criminal networks and a bane to the law enforcement agencies rallied against them. Entities like Interpol, Europol, CITES and the World Customs Organisation are only as good as the government officials in member states who are delegated to work with them,” writes Rademeyer. “Again and again, their efforts to target syndicates in multiple jurisdictions are hamstrung by corruption, incompetence, governments that are unwilling or incapable of acting, a lack of information-sharing, petty jealousies and approaches to tackling crime that wrongly emphasise arrests and seizures over targeted investigations and convictions as a barometer of success.”

In South Africa, the legacy of police chiefs Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele left lasting damage, argue the reports; apart from a lasting lack of public faith in the rule of law, there were real and material changes. “Among the units that Selebi killed off was the Endangered Species Protection Unit (ESPU),” writes Rademeyer. “Established in the late 1980s, it had once been staffed by a team of 30 police officers who carried out investigations into wildlife and environmental issues ranging from ivory, rhino horn and abalone smuggling to the illegal dumping of toxic waste. When it shut its doors in 2002, its informant networks crumbled and its investigators scattered.” The SAPS, he adds, lost a “vast reservoir of investigative expertise”.

Porous borders, of course, are also a significant challenge, with corruption being rife in numerous countries along the smuggling routes. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index scored countries on a scale of 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean); South Africa scored 44, Mozambique scored 31 and Zimbabwe 21. Vietnam tied with Mozambique while China came in at a not-very-promising 37.

In Mozambique, argues one report, “corruption permeates every level of state, and the country’s porous ports, airports and borders make it a smugglers paradise. So do the laws, which punish poaching with prison sentences but allow traffickers to escape with a fine.”

In South Africa, meanwhile, law enforcement remains hamstrung by staffing problems and disintegration of co-operative departments; a senior investigator told Rademeyer that Crime Intelligence thought “anyone with an Excel spreadsheet is an analyst” and that appointments were made gratuitously.

The closure of the police’s Endangered Species Protection Unit in the early 2000s, widespread maladministration, corruption and political meddling in the South African Police Service and its Crime Intelligence division and pervasive ill-discipline in the South African National Defence Force have had a severely detrimental effect on efforts to curb poaching,” is Rademeyer’s assessment.

The end

So what will bring trafficking to an end? According to the reports, the international community can’t continue operating according to the silo effect (and neither can local law enforcement departments). “Transnational rhino horn trafficking networks cannot be addressed in isolation in rhino range states or destination and consumer countries. To have real impact, they must be disrupted along the length of the illicit supply chain.”

The NGO says efforts to curb poaching are a long way from being able to “meaningfully disrupt” transnational criminal networks. “To do so requires a realisation that rhino poaching and wildlife trafficking is not a “green issue” to be dealt with by game rangers and conservationists,” the report argues. “Environmental ministries and agencies have neither the mandate or the necessary political power to address transnational organised crime.”

For as long as the fight against poaching is misunderstood as a bunny-hugger’s battle, says the GI network, smuggling, human trafficking, murder and fraud will continue to win – and the small fry at the bottom of the crime chain will just keep on coming. “Only carefully targeted investigations and prosecutions of high-level figures in poaching and transnational syndicates will have an impact. Arresting dozens of low-level poachers, couriers and smugglers will do little to disrupt the transnational criminal networks. They are the cannon fodder; expendable and easily replaced.” DM

Photo: A White Rhino awaits buyers in a pen at the annual auction in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi national park, September 18, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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