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Rhino slaughter

Rhino Files III | Carte Blanche documentary

31 July 2011

Many young Thai girls are trafficked around the globe – mostly to work in massage parlours or as escorts and prostitutes. But recently the pursuit of profit has seen them being used in a new and previously unexplored opportunity – as trophy hunters for rhinos here in South Africa’s North West Province.

Derek Watts (Carte Blanche presenter): “In the midst of the war against poachers, the Thai traders have now found loopholes in the law which allow them to legally take rhino horn out of the country.”

Sawn off rhino horns - adults & calves

Trophy hunting using young Thai prostitutes is the latest weapon in the hands of wildlife traders from South East Asia who deal in illicit rhino horn. In the past they have made use of syndicates drawing on sophisticated equipment like helicopters and dart guns to illegally poach rhino. It’s left carnage in our reserves and on private farms and in some cases horns were hacked off rhinos which were still alive. Poaching for this year alone stands at 220. And that’s not taking into account this new hunting practice. It’s a worrying trend says Hawks spokesman McIntosh Polela.

McIntosh Polela (Spokesman: Hawks): “If we keep going the way we are going our children’s children will end up seeing rhino in museums.”

It’s this bloody trail that is driving SARS and the Hawks to bust open the syndicates. The same Thai syndicates who are dealing in rhino horn are allegedly also dealing in lion bones. And this proved to be their undoing. In June this year two members of the Thai syndicate, Pichet Thongphai and Punpitak Chunchom were arrested for lion parts found at this house in Edenvale in Johannesburg. Forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan has followed the case

Paul O’Sullivan (Forensic investigator: “They carried out a search and seizure at the house and I believe they got a veritable treasure trove evidence.”

And it’s this evidence that led to yet another big arrest in July.

Derek: “Following an investigation by the South African Revenue Services and the Hawks, allegedly one of the biggest dealers in rhino horn was netted at his house in Edenvale this month.”

The arrested kingpin is Thai national Chumlong Lemthongthai – a director of a Laos-based company called Xaysavang, which deals in lion bones and rhino horn. In the past 10 months he’s allegedly exploited loopholes in our law as well as the permit system to ship more than 32 sets of rhino horns out of the country. It’s the culmination of a two-year investigation according to SARS spokesman Adrian Lackay.

Adrian Lackay (Spokesman: SARS): “Cites specifically stipulates that you may hunt rhino, you may aquire the horns for the purposes of trophy hunting. What we find in these cases we believe and what we will argue before court is that there is clear evidence that it is used for commercial trade. And that of course is prohibited by Cites.”

With live rhino prices at an all time low and poaching being a risky business Chumlong embarked on an ingenious scheme.

Derek: “But now it seems that local professional hunters and safari outfitters may have been complicit in these so-called rhino ‘hunts’.”

Marnus Steyl, safari hunt operator

Chumlong needed a hunting outfitter willing to buy the rhinos on auction and to set up a location for the hunt. That’s when Free State lion farmer Marnus Steyl allegedly came onto the scene and helped set up the hunt in the North West Province where hunting permits were readily available.

Paul: “As soon as they are there – it might be five or maybe six animals at a time – he will then make communication with someone in the syndicate.”

The syndicate then approaches a Thai human trafficker to supply hunters – this is where the Thai prostitutes were recruited, as, legally an individual may shoot one white rhino per year for trophy purposes.

Paul: “He will then supply a copy of passports for six Thai ladies. The hunting permits will be applied for in their name.”

It’s alleged that Steyl Safaris submitted the permit applications to North West government for issue in the girls’ names. The girls were then transported to the farm while the so-called trophy hunt took place, allegedly supervised by Marnus Steyl and professional hunter Harry Claassens.

Paul: “It’s quite clear that the rhinos were not being shot by the prostitutes and strippers. They in fact, were being shot by the professional hunter because most of these prostitutes and strippers couldn’t even hold the gun… in fact, the gun was bigger than they were.”

We managed to get an interview with one of the Thai girls involved in these so-called hunts. “Lee“, who fears for her life, was recruited by the syndicate with promises of a relaxing weekend away.

Lee‘: “Not shoot anything.”

Derek: “You don’t shoot anything?”

Lee;: “Not shoot anything, yes. Sit down, wait, drink, eat, anything.”

She claims she was completely in the dark about the hunt and what her role was.

Derek: “Then you take a picture with the rhino?”

Lee‘: “Yeah, big money for me: R5000.”

Derek: “You get paid R5000?”

Lee‘: “Yes, the man he pay me R5000.”

Derek: “Who paid you?”

Lee‘: “The Thai man – name Chumlong.”

These pictures [on screen] of smiling Thai girls posing beside dead rhinos belie the girl’s horror. (Die foto’s is van Marnus Steyl en die Thai girl en die grootwildjagter langs die renoster)

Lee‘: “Some people cry for the rhino.”

Derek: “Some of the ladies were crying?”

Lee‘: “Cry, yes… yes, really.”

The professional hunter’s job is to look after the interests of the rhino and the hunter explains Professional Hunters Association CEO – Adri Kitsoff .

Adri Kitsoff (CEO: Professional Hunters Association): “Any foreign hunter hunting in South Africa needs to be accompanied by a licenced professional hunter and that would mean licensed in the specific province where the hunt takes place. And that the hunt needs to be organised by a licenced hunting outfitter.”

But the professional hunter isn’t meant to pull the trigger.

Adri: “The permit is first of all issued in the hunter’s name. In other words, if a professional hunter pulled the trigger for the first show without it being necessary for safety purposes or whatever, it means that he is actually conducting an illegal hunt.”

We tried to reach the professional hunter, Harry Claassens regarding the allegations. He refused to answer our questions. But the professional hunter wasn’t the only gatekeeper on these hunts – according to this man close to the situation

Johan‘: “During the hunt an official of Environmental Affairs is present – he supervises the hunts.”

Derek: “So do you think in these cases they were signed off by somebody from North West Parks?

Johan: “Ja, well, the paperwork I saw was signed off by officials of North West Parks or Environmental Affairs or whatever they are being called.”

Thai rhino poaching syndicate member watching horn being sawn off - photo from Mail & Guardian

The conservation officer would need to report that the Thai girls did not shoot the rhino – but it seems this critical information possibly fell through the cracks. We confronted North West government’s Thumeka Nthloko.

Thumeka Nthloko (Director: Biodiversity & Conservation, North West): “Yes, they would report that to the office. But it has never happened like that before.”

Once the nature conservation officer has signed off that the hunt was legitimate – the horn is sawn off and sent to a taxidermist to mount it.

Thumeka: “There is also a national moratorium that was taken to say horns must be mounted and also to say that you cannot travel with horns in your luggage, they must remain in the trophy.”

And given that it’s the horn they are after – Chumlong opted to have the horns mounted European style on a plain wooden plaque.

Paul: “These trophies were being mounted on these cheap wooden plaques and sent to the house of the stripper where obviously they wouldn’t… if we went to Bangkok, you and I today, I don’t think we’re going to find all these houses in the poor neighbourhoods with a rhino horn trophy on the wall.”

This may well be true – especially given the SARS revelation that the trophies are often re-routed to Xaysavang – the company that Chumlong is a director of, in Laos. These customs transgressions formed the basis of the SARS charges.

Adrian: “What we want to present to court as material evidence is that these goods are then sold commercially. So, in other words, they trade under a permit that allows them to do trophy hunting.”

Payment for the rhino to Marnus Steyl of Steyl Safaris was structured round the weight of the horn per kilo rather than the usual trophy basis – it’s even on the invoices.

Paul: “He is in possession himself of the emails where it says: ‘I will pay you R65 000 a kilogram.’ Now a professional hunter would know right away that, I’m paying you to shoot the animal and have the trophy mounted and put on my wall… I’m not paying you R65 000 a kilogram. So you now start to see that this is clearly rhino horn trafficking.”

We were leaked a copy of an order form allegedly sent to Marnus Steyl for 50 rhinos as well as 300 sets of lion bones. The order is signed by Chumlong – the alleged kingpin. Having gotten away with the first 32 rhino hunts – it seems Marnus and Chumlong hoped to apply the same approach to the next 50.

We decided to call Marnus to set up an interview to offer him a right of reply, but he wouldn’t commit. When he stopped taking our calls we decided to go looking for him in his hometown of Winburg about 100km north of Bloemfontein. Our first port of call was his office in town.

Derek: “Derek, good to see you. Just want to see if we could chat to Marnus?”

Woman 1 (Marnus’ PA): “Okay, let me send him a message because he is not available right now.”

Marnus Steyl’s PA did manage to get hold of him by phone.

Woman 1: “He says he’s not available today. He says he’s got many consultations to do today; he says he has your number and he’ll call when he’s ready.”

We’d heard that before so we went looking for him on the Steyl brothers’ family farm on the outskirts of town where we were met by a big no entry sign.

Derek: “Well, we’ve called Marnus Steyl numerous times, we’ve been to his offices, now we are here at his lodge – no entry and it is locked… I think we must take the hint, Marnus definitely doesn’t want to speak to Carte Blanche and give us his side of the story.”

We would have liked him to answer was how and why he was getting his permits in the North West Province rather than in the Free State – from where he operates.

Paul: “Without a doubt the permit office in North West Parks should be picking up on it. Someone must have thought: ‘Well hang on, what’s going on here?'”

So far this year 26 Thai people have shot rhinos in North West.

Thumeka: “Currently we request a CV from the hunter, we check that that CV whether the hunter has hunted before, which animals he has hunted and then we’d also consider that information before we issue the permit.”

The reality is that government officials did not properly check the credentials of these Thai hunters – if they had they would have realised that this was their first hunt and that most of them hasn’t even held a rifle.

Paul O’Sullivan believes money played a role in the granting of these permits.

Paul: “Now we have got the names of certain of the individuals and we have confirmation that they have received bribes. Now, if the people were awake in the North West Province they’d realise that some of their conservation officers are living quite a nice lifestyle, certainly over-and-above the salary that they’re receiving. And that is because they’re being paid bribes by this syndicate.”

The North West government has promised to look into all of these allegations.

Thumeka: “As a department and a province we will keep on monitoring and well will do our best to make sure that no illegal hunts taking place anywhere in the province.”

The WWF‘s Dr Joseph Okori would simply like to see a new approach to permits from government.

Dr Joseph Okori (WWF): “We would certainly advocate for a centralised system and improved reporting from the provinces, right up to the Department of Environmental Affairs.”

Derek: “With rhino poaching rampant and totally out of control, should we be issuing permits to hunt rhino at all or should there be a moratorium?”

The decimation of our rhino population has dominated the headlines. The public reacted with outrage to media reports about the issuing of hunting permits to alleged rhino horn kingpin Dawie Groenewald. Many people believe these hunts should stop.

Thumeka: “No, I can’t say there must be a moratorium… it will have to be discussed by everybody affected, by all the provinces, including the national department.”

Dr Okori: “Despite the fact that we have good legislation in place, we are still seeing losses. We would certainly advocate that stronger measures are put in place – even if a temporary moratorium is put in place against hunting – as long as it goes forwards, ensuring there’s a significant reduction in poaching and in illegal off-takes of rhino.”

The lack of protection from legislation makes these hunts a quick money spinner.

Derek: “Joseph, it seems that these rhino are being sold on auction and very soon after that are being shot on these hunts; surely that should not happen.”

Dr Okori: “Rhinos are not a commodity, they should not be treated as a commodity. The responsibility and the weight upon the South African government to see that this is brought under control and it properly regulated is a big task on their shoulders.”

Both lion and rhino are targeted in these commodity hunts. Currently in the North West they can literally stumble off the truck still tranquilised from their journey, and be shot within five days – all sanctioned by government.

Thumeka: “It only takes about three days for it to recover from that influence of the drug. So, with us, five days that it normally takes to issue a permit is enough for that animal to recover from the drug.”

Authorities need to clamp down on these activities and with Chumlong in jail SARS are hoping to send out a strong message.

Derek: “What are the possible penalties Chumlong and some others might face?”

Adrian: “In terms of the Customs Act, contraventions of this nature could lead to maximum sentence, a monetary fine about three times the value of the goods that were found in your possession.”

In addition Chumlong could face serious jail time.

Adrian: “One Vietnamese suspects caught at OR Tambo International with rhino horn, he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment – direct imprisonment, which was the strongest sentence yet issues by a court of law.”

McIntosh: “We need to give them time in prison so that the people who will see potential in making money in rhino trading will think twice about it.”

Marnus Steyl and Harry Classens are also currently under investigation by the Hawks and SARS for their role in the syndicate. It’s one step closer to securing our rhino.

Original transcript of the Rhino Files III on the Carte Blanche website
Date: 31 July 2011 07:00
Producer:  Amalia Christoforou
Bernadette Cook
Presenter:  Derek Watts
Researcher:  Leila Dougan
Show:  Carte Blanche

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