Smugglers exploit loophole for coveted African rhino horns

January 15, 2013

By TETSUO KOGURE/ Correspondent

JOHANNESBURG--Under the guise of trophy hunting, smugglers are poaching rhinos in South Africa and exporting their horns to Vietnam, where they command high prices on the black market as traditional medicine.

Commercial trade in rhino horns is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It only allows exports of trophy-hunted and stuffed rhinos from South Africa and Swaziland. Secondary sales are illegal.

Chrys van Wyk, a 44-year-old broker in South Africa, has arranged for about 50 Vietnamese, mostly middle-aged men, to hunt rhinos in his homeland.

“I would say that more than 70 percent of them have never had the experience of trophy hunting before,” he said.

Typically, Vietnamese arrive at the international airport in Johannesburg dressed in jeans and immediately move to a private hunting reserve a few hours’ drive away.

They start hunting--which involves using a rifle with a telescopic sight to shoot an animal grazing 30 to 70 meters away--after three to four hours of practice shooting.

Novices almost invariably fail, and professional hunters stand by to kill the game on their behalf.

An estimated 300 or so instances of rhino horn exports by “pretend” hunters have occurred since 2009, according to South African investigators and other sources.

Vietnamese hunters have increased since around 2007, pushing up overall numbers.

Hunting fees have doubled over the past few years. Hunters are now charged between 500,000 rand and 1.2 million rand (5 million yen and 12 million yen) to shoot one of these rare and exotic animals. Horn prices account for much of the fees.

Some of the proceeds go to breeding and conservation efforts.

The Department of Environmental Affairs approved applications from 588 people for rhino trophy hunting between 2009 and November 2012. The figure included 320 Vietnamese and 40 Thais.

Each hunter is allowed to kill one rhino a year.

But Col. Johan Jooste, commander of a South African police squad monitoring trade in endangered species, is concerned that an increase in “disguised” hunters could affect the rhino population.

“We see that our rhino population has been commercially exploited by pseudo hunts,” he said. “We need to find a solution for that because it has a direct impact on our rhino population.”

South Africa is home to the largest number of rhinos in the world. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 25,000 rhinos roam across Africa, mostly in South Africa.

The issue of rhino hunting will be discussed at a meeting of CITES signatory nations to be held in Bangkok in March.

Kenya, which bans hunting of wild animals, plans to propose a six-year moratorium on the stuffed rhino trade to close a loophole that foreigners have exploited in South Africa.

South Africa and Vietnam signed a memorandum in December to end illegal rhino transactions by sharing information and through other measures.

South Africa has called on Vietnam to make it a rule to confirm whether hunters have kept rhino horns, but Vietnamese officials have turned a blind eye to the request.

In November, a 44-year-old Thai was handed a 40-year prison term in South Africa after he was found guilty of arranging for more than 20 Thai women to pose as big-game hunters.

The man, arrested in 2011, was a senior official of a trading company. The women were working at bars and other places in South Africa and had apparently thought they were just going on safari.

Boonta Kongklin told The Asahi Shimbun how she was set up as a hunter.

The 36-year-old came to South Africa in October 2010 after she was told she could make some serious money. She had been working at a laundry in Thailand.

Boonta declined an initial offer of a job at a bar and became a maid for a Thai family. A few days later, she was told she would get 5,000 rand if she went rhino hunting.

The following month, Boonta was driven to a hunting reserve, where she found a rhino slumped dead on the ground. She was handed a rifle and photographed alongside the animal as evidence of bagging her “game.”

After South Africa tightened screening hunting applications from Asians, East Europeans took up some of the slack.

According to a senior Czech official, Czech authorities seized 10 rhino horns at Prague's international airport in March 2012.

Five Czech nationals who had filed for a South African export permit told investigators they went hunting rhinos as a gift from a couple in the Czech Republic. It turned out the destination in the application form was changed from Vietnam to the Czech Republic.

The five also said the couple, a Vietnamese man and a Czech woman, paid all their expenses.

In neighboring Slovakia, eight rhino horns were seized in July, when four Czech nationals attempted to import them.

The four are suspected of having been recruited by the same couple. They are mostly poor and had no prior hunting experience.

They were holding an authentic South African export permit. Czech authorities are demanding South Africa nullify the permit to enable full-scale investigations.

The Czech Republic’s ties with Vietnam go back to the Cold War when the former Czechoslovakia accepted a large number of Vietnamese immigrant workers.

In Vietnam, rhino horns are believed to cure fever, hangover and many other ailments. A few years ago, it was rumored that a minister recovered from cancer after ingesting ground rhino horn as treatment.

Hanoi’s Lan Ong street is lined with 40 or so stores dealing in traditional medicine.

One owner brought out a lump of rhino horn, which she said weighs 24.3 grams. She said the price tag is $1,500 (130,000 yen).

Locals know that sales are illegal. But a self-employed man said he is the envy of others when he displays a 5cm tip of rhino horn at a party.

“A rhino horn is as valuable as gold,” the 52-year-old said.

Demand has been growing in tandem with growth in the Vietnamese economy, which expanded at an average of 7 percent during the 11 years through 2010.

In South Africa, lions have also become a target of similar smugglers.

Exports of trophy-hunted lions to Laos and Vietnam began to emerge in 2009. During a two-year period, 55 lions went to Laos and 33 to Vietnam, according to a British animal protection group.

Traditional medicine using lion bones are suspected of being sold in China and elsewhere.

By TETSUO KOGURE/ Correspondent
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A January 2011 photo showing horns of rhinos killed by illicit hunters (Provided by a person with close contacts to South African officials)

A January 2011 photo showing horns of rhinos killed by illicit hunters (Provided by a person with close contacts to South African officials)

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  • A January 2011 photo showing horns of rhinos killed by illicit hunters (Provided by a person with close contacts to South African officials)
  • A piece of rhino horn is sold as traditional medicine at a shop in Hanoi. (Tetsuo Kogure)

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