Smuggled rhino horns: The Thai connection
Local prostitutes conscripted by gangs to pose as hunters are at the centre of an alleged Southeast Asian smuggling network that South African authorities are scrambling to stop
- Fetching US$2,500 (76,700 baht) for 100g in some Southeast Asian countries, it comes as no surprise to the man tasked with trying to stem the international illegal trade in rhino horns that it is now a major organised crime.
“At the moment rhino horn is worth a lot more than heroin or cocaine,” says John Sellar, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) chief enforcement officer based in Geneva.
Some estimates put the price of rhino horns as high as 2.85 million baht per kilogramme, but many conservation bodies are unwilling to quote prices for fear of increasing trade in the endangered species.
At the centre of the criminal networks are Thai and Vietnamese gangs accused of taking advantage of provisions in South African wildlife laws to harvest rhino horns under the guise of legitimate big-game hunting.
According to the South African Revenue Service (Sars) the biggest scalp so far is smuggling “kingpin” Chumlong Lemthongthai, a 43-year-old Thai national, who was arrested in July at a home he leased in Edenvale, Johannesburg.
The allegations against Mr Chumlong, whose trial has been set for Nov 8, make for colourful reading. He reportedly recruited Thai sex workers and bar girls to pose as hunters and legally kill the animals for trophies, in this case their horns, which are usually mounted on pieces of wood. He is facing multiple breaches of the South African Customs and Excise Act.
Under South African wildlife laws and the oversight of Cites, which permits export of rhino hunting trophies, one hunter is allowed to hunt one rhino every year under supervision of conservation officers after providing a passport and being fingerprinted by police.
In an interview with the South African news programme Carte Blanche, one of the Thai “hunters” _ identified as Lee _ says she was promised a relaxing holiday and was not aware there would be any hunting. She denied killing any rhinos herself.
Lee: Not shoot anything, yes. Sit down, wait, drink, eat, anything.
Interviewer: Then you take a picture with the rhino?
Lee: Yeah, big money for me: 5,000 rand [18,800 baht].
Interviewer: You get paid 5,000 rand?
Lee: Yes, the man he pay me 5,000 [rand].
Interviewer: Who paid you?
Lee: The Thai man – name (is) Chumlong.
The programme then showed pictures of smiling Thai women posing beside dead rhinos, but Lee said most of them were sad the animals had been shot.
Lee: Some people cry for the rhino.
Interviewer: Some of the ladies were crying?
Lee: Cry, yes … yes, really.
In documents submitted to the Kempton Park Court, dated Aug 30, which changed his original guilty plea to innocent, Mr Chumlong said that he simply arranged hunting expeditions for clients referred by the Laos-based company Xaysavang Trading. Mr Chumlong, who lives in Pathum Thani, said he was employed as a manager for the company on 25,000 rand a month.
”For hunting rhino trophy I make contact with an outfitter [game-hunting] company,” he said.
”I make a copy of the hunter’s passport and personal information, as supplied to me by my employer, available to the outfitter.”
Mr Chumlong said it was then up to the outfitter to get a hunting permit from South Africa’s Nature Conservation department, via their provincial and national offices, in the name of the hunter.
He said that all the necessary documentation from Nature Conservation, Cites, Taxidermy and Customs departments, had been acquired by other parties or the exporter. ”None of the applications for any of the permits or any of the export documents were completed by me,” said Mr Chumlong’s statement.
Sars spokesman Adrian Lackay said that while Cites stipulates rhinos can be hunted for the purpose of ”trophy hunting”, in the Chumlong case there was clear evidence it was for commercial trade.
In prosecution documents submitted to the court opposing Mr Chumlong’s bail, there is an order form from Xaysavang Trading to South African ”game farmer” Marnus Steyl dated April 23.
Signed by Mr Chumlong as the company director, it requests 50 white rhino sets (at 65,000 rand per kg) and 300 lion bones (at 10,000 rand per 10kg). For the rhino horn it says ”Cites permit import Thai” and for the lion bones ”Cites import Laos, PDR”. The order period is from May 15 until Aug 20 and also says 15 rhinos can be shot per month.
The name Marnus Steyl _ and his company Steyl Game _ shows up repeatedly in the court documents related to Mr Chumlong’s case.
South African forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan who has followed the cases involving Mr Chumlong and two other members of the alleged Thai smuggling syndicate, Pichet Thongphai and Punpitak Chunchom who were arrested in June after lion bones were found at the Edenvale house, said the operation needed a willing outfitter.
Mr O’Sullivan said in an interview with Carte Blanche that Mr Steyl allegedly set up rhino hunts in the North West Province where hunting permits are readily available.
”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,” Mr O’Sullivan alleged.
He said the syndicate would then approach a human trafficker who recruited Thai sex workers and strippers and hunting permits were applied for in their names after their passports were provided.
”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,” Mr O’Sullivan alleged.
”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.”
The horns shot by the women were mounted European style on a plain wooden plaque.
”These trophies were being mounted on these cheap wooden plaques and sent to the house of the stripper … 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,” Mr O’Sullivan said.
Export documents submitted by the Sars to the court show that of 26 rhino horn shipments from October, 2010, to May, 2011, Steyl Game was the company issuing the invoices in 23 cases to either Xaysavang Trading or a Thai national.
There are also 23 tax invoices from Steyl Game attached _ four to Xaysavang Trading and the remainder to the Thai nationals. In the invoices to Xaysavang it states the price per kilogramme at 60,000 rand. For instance, the invoice dated Nov 16, 2010, says ”rhino 8.85kg@60,000kg”. The total charge is 531,000 rand.
The majority of the invoices to the Thai women come in at $47,000-$49,000.
Both Mr Steyl and Mr Claassens have so far refused to comment publicly on the allegations, but it is understood they are under investigation by SA wildlife authorities and the revenue department.
A Sars spokesman said after Mr Chumlong’s last court appearance on Sep 15 that the prosecutor indicated ”possible further charges and that other suspects will be arrested and added to the charge sheet”.
Key to the case against Mr Chumlong and Xaysavang are the export documents some of which, Sars alleges, show the Cites permits do not match the person they were issued to or the country destination.
”Exporting horns to a country other than that of the Cites permit holder is part of an elaborate scheme to trade in rhino horns which is prohibited by both South African and international law,” says the Sars court document.
HORNS OF A DILEMMA
Mr Sellar spent 24 years as a police officer in Scotland and has been with Cites for 14 years. He is about to retire soon as chief enforcement officer, but behind the measured statements on the fight against rhino smuggling it’s easy to hear a hint of exasperation in his voice.
”Rhino horn smuggling is the most sophisticated organised crime I’ve seen in my time at Cites,” said Mr Sellar.
”It involves corrupt officials, diplomatic immunity and violence and threats against officers.”
Last month, British newspaper The Guardian reported there was an ”epidemic” of thefts of rhino horns from museums and private owners across the UK and quoted a price of 60,000 (2.85 million baht) per kilogramme for the horns.
The Chinese government banned the use of rhino horns in traditional Chinese medicine in 1993 and went so far as to remove them from Chinese pharmacopoeia in favour of substitutes.
In the UK, the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine ”strongly condemns the illegal trade in endangered species and has a strict policy prohibiting the use of any type of endangered species by any of our members”.
And in the US, in a letter to Cites, Lixin Huang, president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine stated unequivocally that rhino horn has no place in traditional Chinese medicine.
Despite such condemnation, rhino horns are still used to treat ailments in some communities and demand an exorbitant asking price. They are also greatly valued as ornaments and as handles for weapons in Yemen and Oman.
Mr Chumlong isn’t the only person from the region accused of trafficking animal con traband. A delegation from Vietnam met with South African environment ministry officials last week to try and develop a mechanism to deal with Vietnamese crime syndicates involved in the illegal rhino poaching. Last month two Vietnamese men, Duc Manh Chu and Phi Hung Nguyeng were jailed for 10 and eight years respectively after they were found with rhino horns in their luggage at Johannesburg’s airport last year.
”It is certainly true that Thais and Vietnamese have been exploiting the opportunity to indulge in legal hunting in South Africa,” said Mr Sellar, who cannot comment on individual cases.
”It took them [the South African authorities] some time to wake up to what’s going on … but they are facing a difficult task where you do have legal hunting of rhino. They have no legal basis to reduce the ability of someone wanting to go there to legally hunt.”
Mr Sellar said while things were ”certainly getting better” when it comes to enforcement, better cooperation was needed between Interpol, the World Customs Organisation and Cites.
”We are very frustrated at the lack of co-operation, collaboration and co-ordination at both the national and international level,” he said.
While detection of couriers has improved, strategies to get to the big players behind the syndicates, such as a ”controlled release” of a suspect, needed to be explained to law enforcement officers, prosecutors and the judicial figures.
”I think the people controlling the money are sitting back in Asia and they are sending over the couriers and the smugglers,” he said, adding that in-country ”foremen” were deployed by the syndicates for hands-on logistics.
Enforcement is also hindered by a lack of a central database, no ability to place a suspect on Interpol’s watchlist, and wildlife crimes not being taken as seriously as other criminal activities such as human-trafficking or drug smuggling.
Recent figures indicate that at least 60 of the over 220 rhinos killed in South Africa this year were part of the authorised hunts sanctioned by provincial conservation bodies.
Dr Joseph Okori from the WWF said he would like to see a new approach to permits from the South African government.
”We would certainly advocate for a centralised system and improved reporting from the provinces, right up to the Department of Environmental Affairs,” he said, adding that a temporary moratorium should be considered on the legal rhino hunts.
South Africa’s Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa said recently she would consider a moratorium on rhino hunting as part of the national efforts against poaching of the Big Five species.
Ms Molewa warned it would take at least two years, as there would have to be consultation and agreement across all nine provinces before any moratorium could be put in place.
Mrs Molewa said 143 permits have been issued this year to hunt rhino, compared to 129 last year. The most popular destination for rhino trophy hunters is North West Province, where 77 official permits have been granted.
Mr Sellar said the legal hunts brought in revenue for local communities and some of the money generated from it went to animal conservation programmes. But he added that South African organisers of the hunts had to take some responsibility for those abusing the system.
”They take the hunter to within five metres of the rhino and it’s obvious the hunter has never fired a gun in his or her life,” he said. ”If you are interested in balancing conservation and hunting you would report this to local authorities.”
Smugglers are also facing tougher penalties handed out by the South African courts. In Mr Chumlong’s case, under the Customs Act the fine would be treble the 8.2 million rand in the invoices, equalling a 32.6 million rand fine or five years’ imprisonment.
If other charges were laid under South Africa’s National Environmental: Biodiversity Act and for fraud, a Sars spokesman said there could be significant jail time for Mr Chumlong.
”Smugglers have received over 12 years imprisonment but this case is probably of more significance,” he said.
In changing his plea from guilty to innocent, Mr Chumlong said he had misunderstood his court-appointed officer and believed he would simply be fined and the case dismissed if he pleaded guilty.