South Africa is home to 93% of the rhinos in Africa. At the start of the 20th century there were only 500,000 wild rhinos on earth. By 1970 this number had dropped to 70,000, today the estimated number of rhinos left in the wild is 29,000. Uncontrolled hunting, poaching and the loss of habitat are the main reasons for this huge drop in rhino populations.
Poaching of the endangered black rhino caused a 96% drop in their numbers from 65,000 in 1970, to just 2,300 in 1993. Increased security measures and conservation projects have helped to raise their numbers to just over 5,000. The southern white rhino population dropped to 50 in the wild by the 1900s. Conservation initiatives were implemented and successfully brought their numbers back up to just over 20,000. However the alarming increase in poaching since 2008 is threatening this successful population growth.
One of the reasons for the successful rise in the white rhino population was due to ‘Operation Rhino’, a project that was launched in the 1960s. The project aimed to increase the rhino population by moving some of the last remaining rhinos to game reserves across SA and the rest of the continent. Another contributing factor to this rise in the rhino population in South Africa was the fact that trophy hunting of the species was banned. This ban was implemented at the same time as ‘Operation Rhino’ was initiated.
The success of the project had its problems. There were eventually too many rhinos in the reserves that were part of the operation, so more land was needed to accommodate this growth in population. Help was needed from the private sector, private game farms were the only solution to this problem.
To incentivize these private farms to take on the surplus rhinos they would need a way to make it a financially viable option for these game farmers. Some private reserves could accommodate these rhinos and generate an income via tourism, but many of them were not able to use tourism to fund the costs involved when it comes to keeping these rhinos safe from poaching, or to cover the costs of the land needed to accommodate them. To solve this problem the ban on trophy hunting of white rhino was lifted, and in the 1970s controlled hunting was introduced. The lifting of the hunting ban on white rhino encouraged these private farms to start stocking and breeding rhinos, by 2012 there were about 4,500 white rhinos conserved on private land in South Africa.
Trophy hunting of rhinos is only legal in Namibia and South Africa. The number of rhinos that can be hunted is regulated by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Trophy hunting of black rhinos is strictly controlled, with only 5 permits issued each year to South Africa and Namibia, so a total of 10 per year. This quota was agreed upon at the 13th Conference of the Parties of CITES in 2004. These have to be male (bulls) that can no longer-breed, or that are aggressive and hinder other males from breeding.
Trophy hunting of white rhinos is less closely regulated due to the fact that there are a lot more of them. Most of the white rhinos are shot on private farms, and the decision as to which rhino gets shot is left up to the owner of the farm. A trophy hunter can only get one permit per year to shoot a white rhino.
To avoid “put and take hunts,” where a rhino is placed into a confined area and then shot soon afterwards, a regulation was introduced in 2007 which clearly states that rhinos must have been released in an area for a minimum of 24 months before being hunted.
Conservationists like Ian Player backed this lifting of the ban on hunting because it was seen as a way to incentivize the private game farms to stock and breed rhinos. He is not alone when it comes to defending trophy hunting as a way to help rhino conservation, the head of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Yolan Friedman, Andrew Muir, head of the Wilderness Foundation, and Pelham Jones, head of the Private Rhino Owners Association, issued a joint statement in 2015 stating that trophy hunting is a major incentive that is necessary to incentivize privately owned rhino farms to continue breeding their rhinos.
In their statement, Friedman, Muir and Jones however said that there is a need for stricter controls on rhino hunts, and that a new quota system should be introduced to reduce rhino hunts, and that the hunting permits should be regulated nationally rather than provincially. Not all conservation organizations backed the concept of trophy hunting of rhinos as being a way to help fund rhino conservation. The recent surge in poaching is one of the arguments against the idea.
In 2007 there were only 13 reported rhino poaching incidents in South Africa, these incidents increased rapidly since then and currently over 1,000 rhinos are being poached annually in the country. The abuse of trophy hunting of rhinos by foreigners as a way to obtain rhino horn, the exploitation of this loophole by unethical hunting safari companies and privately owned game farms, the lack of control in the issuing of permits to hunt rhinos and a low conviction rate when it comes to punishing those abusing the system are arguments used to try ban trophy hunting of rhinos. Trophy hunting worked as a short term solution to help save rhinos, but is it still working? I shall go into some detail to highlight how the trophy hunting of rhinos I feel has gone from being a ‘necessary evil’ to many conservationists, to a force of destruction that is becoming a threat to the species.
Poaching and trophy hunting have both become ways to exploit the rhinos – the system is flawed and out of control.
“’Pseudo-hunting’ is the practice whereby supposed trophy hunters either need to be told how to shoot or leave the actual shooting to an accompanying Professional Hunter or land owner, a practice that is illegal in South Africa.” – Endangered Wildlife Trust
The use of pseudo-hunting as a way to export rhino horns to Vietnam has been used to get horns out of South Africa as far back as 2003. The exporting of rhino horns is illegal, so poaching can be avoided as a way to obtain ‘legal’ rhino horns by using trophy hunting (a ‘legal’ means of rhino trophy/horn export).
In order to export the horns, the head of the slain rhino must be mounted by a taxidermist, and the horns need to be micro-chipped. It is one of the most popular ways to launder rhino horns to supply the market in Vietnam. All trophy hunts of rhinos also require a government official to be there on the day of the hunt to ensure that the hunt is legitimate and that the rules are enforced.
Despite this official presence, abuse of the system takes place. Are these officials being bribed to turn a blind eye to these situations or do they simply not care if rules get broken?
In 2006, this number shot up to 58 trophies and in 2005, 73 were exported. A total of 268 rhino horns were exported between 2006 and 2009. These figures are however suspect because between 2005 and 2007 Vietnamese ‘trophy hunters’ participated in 203 white rhino hunts, and this would have yielded at least 406 rhino horns. Many of these rhino hunts take place on the same farms on a regular basis. So it is not only the trophy hunting operation in South Africa that are involved, it is the game farmers as well.
Rhino horn is worth about $40,000-$60,000 USD per kilogram. The horns of a black rhino weigh on average three kilograms, and the horns of a white rhino five and half kilograms. This means a rhino is worth about $300,000 USD. To shoot a rhino in South Africa costs about $60,000 USD, so the profit margins from selling trophy hunted rhino horns make it a lucrative business for these Vietnamese ‘trophy hunters.’
It is not only the trophy hunters making money. South African hunting companies also saw the value of selling the hunts, despite the fact that many of these Vietnamese trophy hunters were barely capable of shooting a rifle. In 2010, in an article published in the Mercury titled ‘Tracking down ‘Boere Rhino Mafia’, South Africa’s rhino horn trafficking ring was exposed for being involved in rhino poaching activities. This ‘operation’ had started to fall apart when two brothers, Nicolaas and Gideon van Deventer were arrested in 2010 for the killing of 19 white rhinos. They were caught when security staff searched their vehicle when they were leaving the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve. Security staff discovered four rhino horns, plus illegal fire arms and ammunition in their vehicle.
Gideon van Deventer, at the time of the arrest was out on bail for a prior conviction in 2006, where he was found guilty for illegally purchasing rhino horns. The two brothers told the media that three of these rhinos that they had shot were calves, and that they were only shot because they kept hanging around their dead mothers. Eight of these rhinos were shot in the Kruger National Park, two in the Hluhluwe–iMfolozi game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal, and the rest were shot on private game farms that were owned by people the syndicate knew. Gideon van Deventer confessed to nine charges of killing rhinos illegally, he was given a ten year jail sentence, two years of this sentence were suspended. So he only had to spend eight years in jail as a result.
Nicolas van Deventer admitted to having been involved in the poaching of three rhinos, he was sentenced to five years in jail, but half of this sentence was suspended, so he only had to do two and a half years in jail. The two van Deventer brothers gave information to the authorities that implicated George Clayton Fletcher, co-owner of Sandhurst Safaris and Gert Bartlomeus Saaiman, owner of Saaiman Hunting Safaris, the Saaiman Game Ranch and Saaiman Aviation, for being involved in the poaching operation. The two of them, as well as the third van Deventer brother, Frans van Deventer, were arrested using this information. The ‘Boere Rhino Mafia’ were charged for racketeering, money laundering, various counts of theft, malicious damage to property, contravening of various conservation laws and for contravening aviation laws. Saaiman’s aviation company had allegedly used the company’s planes to locate rhinos in the various national parks, and also to transport poachers and their equipment.
In October 2010, Gideon van Deventer allegedly told the lawyers involved in prosecuting the ‘Boere Rhino Mafia’ that he was no longer willing to testify in the case. He claimed that two private investigators had paid him a visit in prison and offered to pay him not to testify, and if he refused they threatened to harm his children. Shortly after this, the judge heading up the trial, Judge Nomonde Mngqibisa, closed the case. The reasons she gave for doing so was the fact that the case was based on the testimony of a convicted criminal. In 2011, hunting safari operator Marnus Steyl, and a Thai national, Chumlong Lemtongthai, were arrested for being involved in an organization that was using rhino trophy hunting as a way of selling the horns to agents in Asia. Steyl’s hunting company, Steyl Game CC, helped to arrange hunts of not only rhinos, but other exotic species, these included lion, sable antelope and roan antelope.
Two other Thai nationals, Punpitak Chunchom and Tool Striton, as well as South African professional hunter Harry Claassens, were arrested for their involvement in the Steyl-Lemtongthai trophy hunting scam. Part of this scam allegedly involved the trafficking of young Thai woman to South Africa, these woman were used to act as rhino trophy hunters, and to work as prostitutes. This was so that when caught, they were able to ‘write them off’ as expendable members of the operation.
Chumlong Lemtongthai was the only one of the members of the Steyl-Lemtongthai trophy hunting scam to get given jail time, he was sentenced to 40 years behind bars, but this was reduced to only 20 years, most likely because he provided information to the authorities that helped them uncover another poaching syndicate, the ‘Groenewlad Gang.’
Lemtongthai also signed an affidavit which stated that Steyl was not involved in the operation, and Steyl as a result walked free. In 2010, Dawie Groenewald (game farm owner and owner of ‘Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris’) and his wife Sariette and nine others, including professional hunters, veterinarians, a pilot and farm labourers, were arrested by the South African authorities.
Groenewald was charged for numerous crimes, these included racketeering, money-laundering, fraud, intimidation, illegal hunting and dealing in rhino horns. He was accused of killing fifty-nine of his own rhinos, and then getting rid of the evidence by burying them, burning them or selling them to a local butchery. He was also charged for illegally dehorning 384 rhino horns over a four-year period. Groenewald first started selling rhino hunts on his farm in about 2008. One of his first clients was Alexander Steyn who had previously been linked to canned cheetah hunts. Steyn arranged hunts for Vietnamese ‘hunters’ interested in hunting rhino in South Africa.
Groenewald bought 44 rhinos on auction between 2008 and 2009 from South African National Parks (SANParks), an organization in charge of many of South Africa’s national parks. In 2008, SANParks made R22 million from the sale of rhinos and in 2009 they made R52 million. Many of the buyers of these rhinos were buying them, like Groenewald, to sell to Vietnamese ‘hunters’. Groenewald said that anyone who sold hunts to American trophy hunters was “fu**ed-up” because the Vietnamese were paying a lot more for rhino hunts than the Americans. He however did sell rhino hunts to American trophy hunters illegally.
In January 2010, Dawie Groenewald was detained in the United States and charged for selling an illegal leopard hunt to a US sports hunter. He later pled guilty to the charges and was fined $30,000. This was not the first charge he would face from America, in 2014, the US Department of Justice charged Dawie and his brother, Janneman Groenewald, with “conspiracy to sell illegal rhinoceros hunts in South Africa in order to defraud American hunters, money laundering and secretly trafficking in rhino horns.”
According to the charges, the two brothers sold 11 rhino hunts to American trophy hunters. The hunters shot the rhinos but were told they could not send the rhinos back to the USA because it was not legal to export them. The hunters were able to take photos of their kills as proof for their record books. The Groenewald brothers would then sell these horns illegally on the black market. The trophy hunters paid between $3,500 and $15,000 for the illegal rhino hunts. Despite the pending court case, Groenewald continued to buy and sell rhinos in South Africa. He was issued permits to “hunt, convey, import, and export white rhino” by provincial government authorities, the last one being issued in March, 2011.
In January, 2011, a Vietnamese man and a woman were arrested at the Wonderboom Airport in Pretoria when they were found to be in illegal possession of four rhino horns. The horns were from two rhinos killed on a legal hunt that reportedly took place on a farm in Musina. They were arrested for not having the correct documentation. In the same month a Mossel Bay professional hunter, Christaan Frederik van Wyk, was fined about $4,246 USD for illegally shooting a white rhino. The hunter who van Wyk arranged the hunt for was a Vietnamese man, Nguyen Tien Hoang. The hunt took place at the Leshoka Thabang Game Lodge, on April 27th, 2006. This was van Wyk’s second conviction, in 2010 he was convicted for another illegal rhino hunt that involved a Vietnamese client.
Peter Thormahlen, a hunting safari company owner, has been in trouble with the law a few times with regards to rhino hunts. in 2006 he was prosecuted for a hunt that took place at the Loskop Dam Nature Game Reserve, he was fined after his Vietnamese hunter admitted to an official that he did not know how to shoot. He was back in court in 2008 for another rhino hunt, but his lawyer got him off the charge. Thormahlen’s rhino hunts have mostly taken place on Mauricedale Game Reserve, a privately owned rhino breeding farm.
In April 2012 the South African government tightened the laws regarding the issuing of permits to the rhino hunters from Asia, permits were no longer issued to Vietnamese citizens. The problem was not solved and others took their place to take advantage of the trophy hunting loophole.
In July 2013, 24 rhino horns were seized by Customs officials at Prague’s Václav Havel International Airport in the Czech Republic. Sixteen suspects were arrested in connection with this attempted rhino horn smuggling operation. The arrested ‘hunters’ were allegedly hired by an ‘international criminal gang’ to hunt the rhinos in South Africa.
In February 2014, The Environmental Investigation Agency issued a report titled ‘In Cold Blood’. In the report they said that ‘efforts by the Czech authorities to exchange information with South African counterparts, including using INTERPOL channels, were largely fruitless. This meant that the South African participants in this crime were not named, so no one connected to this crime on the South African side got implicated, even though there had to be some form of South African involvement.
In August 2012, TRAFFIC published an extensive report (“The South Africa – Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus“), which highlighted the fact that South Africa’s “high-profile private sector individuals” were consistently managing to evade the law.
A year later, in April 2013, Africa Check published a report about the low conviction rate in rhino related court cases. They stated that between January 2010 and July 2012, 573 people had been arrested for rhino related crimes, but up to 2012, despite these arrests, only 28 of those who had been arrested were convicted in 20 cases.
The low conviction rate, and the lack of control of the private game farming and trophy hunting industries in South Africa has created a business that is thriving from the killing of rhinos. In July 2013, investigative reporters, Fiona MacLeod and Estacio Valoi, revealed that South African trophy hunters were running a rhino horn trafficking ring out of Mozambique. They said that the kingpin was reportedly a “safari outfitter with a hunting concession close to Corumana dam.” In order for him to escape the law he apparently was bribing a local police chief to drop any charges brought against him whenever he or his staff got caught. Some of the professional hunters who were part of this operation had previously been caught luring lions out of the Kruger National Park to be used for ‘canned hunts’, and another hunting safari company that was implicated in this operation were known to have previously been involved in ivory smuggling in Namibia.
On 9 September 2014, Hugo Ras, the owner of a hunting safari company and game farm owner, was arrested for being involved in rhino poaching. Ras had previously been convicted on at least 20 charges between 2000 and 2009, including charges for breaking nature conservation laws, numerous charges involving illegal hunting and importing of game, crimen injuria, assault and the possession of an unlicensed firearm. The syndicate, which operated in five of South Africa’s nine provinces, were accused of being involved in the slaughter and mutilation of 24 rhinos on state and privately owned game reserves between 2008 and 2012. Two of these rhinos survived, but both were horribly disfigured.
They were also accused of stealing 84 rhino horns or acquiring them by other ‘devious means’. Nine others were arrested with Ras, the accused included Ras’s wife Trudie, his brother Anton, Joseph Wilkinson, an attorney who had represented Ras, a game capture pilot, Bonnie Steyn, a hunter who did most of the killings, Mandla Magagula, and significantly, a warrant officer in the Hawks, Willie Oosthuizen. Eight of the ten suspects were later released on bail. Ras and his brother-in-law, Abraham Smit, were denied bail and are in jail awaiting their trial.
The involvement of trophy hunting operations in rhino poaching, or their assistance in arranging ‘pseudo trophy hunts’ to take advantage of loopholes in the conservation laws is a regular occurrence. The fact that so few of those caught are convicted perhaps fuels this arrangement. It is clear that the legal trophy hunts are being used as a way to supply rhino horns to the market.
There also is no country-wide system monitoring the issuing of permits, this makes keeping track of how many permits are issued harder. The involvement of vets, game farmers, lawyers, law enforcement officials and diplomats in this scheme shows how the financial rewards are corrupting those who have the access to these rhinos.
It is ironic that trophy hunting was used initially as a way to incentivize private individuals to assist in their conservation, efforts but in the end this turned many of these individuals into criminals.
The need to save rhinos paved the way for the trophy hunting business to make a killing from rhino horn, and this then created a system where many trophy hunting operations partnered up with the poachers to make even more money. The only thing that complicates this picture is the fact that seventy percent of land used for conservation is privately owned, so many of the rhinos are now in the care of these farms.
How can one now ban the trophy hunting of rhinos when one relied on them initially to help out during the initial crisis? To do this one would need to once again make it financially worth their while to abandon their businesses, who would fund this? It is a messy situation! When animals are seen as simply objects (commodity) that one can sell, it is hard to simply shut down an industry that makes about $90,000,000 a year from the selling of rhino hunts – this estimated figure is only the money that is declared – who knows how much more gets made via undeclared revenue streams?