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South African Court Jails Rhino Horn Smugglers

A South African court effectively threw away the key when it jailed two smugglers convicted of trying to smuggle rhino horns out of the country. But the slaughter of the country’s pachyderms for  the spurious healing power of their horns continues unchecked. A new scheme allegedly involves sex workers posing as trophy hunters seeking to...

A South African court effectively threw away the key when it jailed two smugglers convicted of trying to smuggle rhino horns out of the country. But the slaughter of the country’s pachyderms for  the spurious healing power of their horns continues unchecked. A new scheme allegedly involves sex workers posing as trophy hunters seeking to harvest rhino horns through a legal loophole.

The court action came in the form of stiff jail sentences handed to two Vietnam nationals convicted of smuggling rhino horns. They were found in possession of the horns and arrested at Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo International Airport in June last year.

One of them, Duc Manh Chu, had twelve rhino horns in his baggage, for which he was sentenced to ten years in prison. He got a further two years for fraud. His countryman, Phi Hung Nguyeng, had six rhino horns and got six years, as well as a further two for fraud. Neither was given the option of a fine.

The sentences are the toughest handed down yet under South Africa’s biodiversity laws. They have been heartily welcomed by conservationists, who have been strongly critical of soft penalties and easy bail, which they said the culprits had no trouble paying from their ill-gotten proceeds.

In imposing the sentences, the magistrate is reported to have remarked that he did not want to one day “show his grandchildren pictures of rhinos because all the live animals had been killed by greedy people”.

In a statement announcing the sentences, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) also quoted the magistrate as warning rhino poachers and rhino horn couriers that it made no difference whether they killed the rhino or carried the horns. The same penalty would be handed down in either case.

EWT praised the excellent work of all the officials involved in securing the convictions, from the airport baggage scanners and the police to the prosecutors and the magistrate.

“We recognise that conservationists are not just those lucky enough to work on game reserves, but include all people who are committed to conserving our natural heritage and protecting our wildlife from illegal trade and poaching. South Africa has excellent environmental legislation, and strong enforcement of these laws forms a critical component of a national conservation movement,” EWT’s statement said.

Sex Workers Posing as Legal Rhino Hunters?

More instances keep coming to light of the extraordinary lengths smugglers will go to in trying to cash in on the mistaken belief that rhino horn has healing properties.  The latest involves the alleged use of illegal Thai immigrants said to be working in the sex trade to pose as big-game hunters.

South Africa’s environmental legislation allows the legal trophy hunting of one rhino per hunter per year. The horns get mounted for purposes of being exported as trophies. But at their Asian destinations they are ground into powder to be sold as traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments, including impotence. Clinical and lab testing have never produced a shred of evidence that rhino horn — which is essentially the same material as finger nails — can yield any physical health benefits. Rhino horn cannot restore virility.

Beeld, an Afrikaans-language newspaper published in Johannesburg, has reported how a company registered in Laos gets its supply of horns from rhinos hunted on the game ranch of a wealthy farmer and safari operator in South Africa’s Free State province.  Two Thai sex workers are among the supposed hunters in whose name the trophy-hunting permits have been obtained, the paper reported.

Two Thai nationals suspected of being involved in the scam have been arrested. Another has been banished from the country after he got caught in possession of lion bones, which have also become a growing part of the illegal trade in wildlife parts from South Africa.

NGS stock photo of white rhino in imFolozi by Volkmar K. Wentzel


The exploitation of gaps in the law has caused such outrage that Dereck Joubert, renowned wildlife film maker and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, has called for a serious re-think of the trophy-hunting industry.

He said: “With rhinos in South Africa now being shot at roughly one a day by poachers, this is clearly a time for everyone to think very seriously about wildlife of all kinds and what role they play as a national resource and a global one. We must be restrained and set aside our own rather selfish desires at this time — desires like safari hunting.

“It’s unfathomable that anyone can feel good about coming to Africa to shoot rhinos as trophies while both (white and black) rhino species are basically under siege from poaching. We can’t keep hunting declining species and turning a blind eye to the plummeting numbers just because those deaths are illegal and by poachers. The combined efforts will force them into more rapid extinction.

“We have the same issue with the big cats where numbers are declining fast, yet hunting continues despite every scientific survey suggesting that trophy hunting has a negative impact on these species.”

Gerhard Verdoorn, deputy president of the South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association (SAHGCA),  responded: “Our organisation has been working quietly, without a public fuss, against rhino poaching for some time. We have established a project called Rhinos Alive with the explicit aim of making government, policy makers, decision makers and law enforcement agencies aware that their approach of putting limitations on the trade in rhino horn has actually catalysed the current situation where the black market forces have taken over the sustainable utilisation community and turned the illegal harvesting of rhino horn into a lucrative business.

“Instead of establishing a well-regulated mechanism whereby the current market for rhino horn can be supplied with legally harvested horns (as from shavings or the occasional removal of horns), the state agencies have opted for the banning of such activities, thereby driving the trade underground. To paint responsible hunting and hunters with the same brush as illegal poachers is madness. Should the legal hunting of rhinos be banned, the illegal harvesting of rhinos would continue probably at an increased rate to satisfy the greedy needs of those criminal elements recently featured in local and international media.

“Of greatest concern to us is the fact that permits are continually issued to individuals who are facing criminal trials for illegal activities involving rhinos and other wildlife. What is even more alarming is that permits are issued to individuals who conduct so-called trophy hunts with persons who are involved with and conduct human trafficking. The question we need answered is whether the issuing authority does any checks on whether these so-called hunts are legal, and why they are allowing such heinous activities to continue.

“Among the serious questions asked by rhino owners is how it is possible that poachers know where rhinos are delivered after auctions. Such animals get poached within days of their new owners taking ownership of them. Somewhere along the line the permit issuing authorities are failing rhinos just like they are failing other wildlife like small predators that are hunted with permits.

“Banning rhino hunting for bona fide and responsible hunters is not going to solve the problem. The white rhino population can easily sustain an annual take-off of those animals that are legally hunted. The problem is that many animals are blatantly poached and many more appear to be hunted with the blessing of the permit-issuing authorities.

“One should clamp down on the decision makers who authorise the issuing of these permits, the individuals who capitalise on the poor regulatory environment and the syndicates who illegally, or with permits, trade in rhino products. People who are facing criminal trials or are subject to investigations into illegal activities involving rhinos should be suspended from any such activities until their trials or investigations had been concluded. Until such time they should also have their outfitter’s and professional hunter’s licenses withdrawn.

“SAHGCA supports the DNA fingerprinting of as many rhinos as possible as a means of keeping meticulous track of every rhino and all rhino products in South Africa. This is part of our Rhinos Alive campaign to which our members have already contributed significantly. We hope we can contribute to sustainable management of rhinos in South Africa through this initiative and convince government that banning is not a solution but a catalyst for more underground activities. Our rhinos should remain alive and not succumb to the pressures of the poaching syndicates because their horns are worth more than their lives,” he said.

With concern already high over the widespread involvement in the illegal rhino-horn trade of people connected to wild-life protection services, it has just been announced that a Kruger National Park game ranger has been arrested on suspicion of rhino poaching.

About 230 rhinos have been killed so far this year. Fifteen alleged poachers have been killed in shootouts, mostly in Kruger National Park where the army is helping with patrols, and 131 suspects have been arrested.

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Meet the Author

Leon Marshall
Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won several awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.