Alleged rhino poaching gang served trophy hunters as well as Asian medicinal demand

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2010:
(published October 5, 2010)


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
Among them were Out of Africa Adventurous
Safaris operator Dawie Groene-wald, 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
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
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 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.”

More outfitters

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, “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 Magis-trate’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
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–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.”

Mugabe connection

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 Sept-ember 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.”
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 Advent-urous
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,” WWF
spokesperson Okori told News24.
“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
organised 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
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. PHASA worried
that abuse of the loophole might lead to it being
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.

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