Syndicate Bust Links Trophy Hunting to Rhino Poaching in South Africa


In South Africa, the connection between unscrupulous trophy hunt operators and rhino poaching is growing increasingly evident.

A recent rhino poaching syndicate bust has revealed yet another link between trophy hunting and rhino poaching in South Africa – a further indication that rhino industry insiders are behind the increasing carnage.

Busted: Sandhurst Safaris

Although trophy hunting supporters are loathe to admit it, the lucrative rewards for rhino horn and easy access to guns have made the industry a natural breeding ground for rhino poaching and horn smuggling activities.

Last month, Sandhurst Safaris, a trophy hunt operation, was implicated in a major rhino poaching and horn smuggling operation, in which millions in property and assets were seized.

These include the residential properties of the accused and all other properties in which they have an interest, such as George Fletcher’s seven farms, situated at Sandhurst Safaris in Tosca in the North West province. The seven farms are registered in a trust, named “Fletcher Trust”, of which George Fletcher is a trustee.

According to several sources, including News 24, the group used a small aircraft to locate rhinos in South African national parks and transport poachers to the parks, where the rhinos were shot and killed. The rhino horns were then taken via aircraft to Sandhurst Safaris – which also served as a money laundering point for the operation.

… the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) confiscated an Aerostar small aeroplane allegedly used to transport the poachers to the game reserves, to spot the rhinos and transport their horns to Sandhurst Safaris, in Tosca, in the North West.

African Scent Safaris under suspicion

In 2009, Dwesa Nature Reserve auctioned off the right to kill six rhinos to the highest bidder – which happened to be African Scent Safaris. Afterward, it was confirmed that Vietnamese clients of African Scent Safaris killed two rhinos and had the horns exported to Vietnam.

The horns of the two rhinos shot at Dwesa this month have been exported to Vietnam to the hunters who shot them, the outfitter involved in the controversial hunt said yesterday.

Speaking from his base in Bloemfontein, Willem Botha, of African Scent Safaris, said his two Vietnamese clients could now do “anything” with the horns.

Botha did admit that he “had never before had clients from Vietnam” and further claimed he was unaware of a charge pending against one of his clients.

Wildlife trade experts reveal evidence linking trophy hunting and illegal rhino horn trade

In addition, the most recent report prepared for CITES by the IUCN/SSC and TRAFFIC notes the connection between trophy hunting and illegal rhino horn trade in which a growing number of Vietnamese “clients” are participating in hunting safaris in order to thwart legal loopholes and gain access to rhino horn.

Investigations in South Africa have revealed disturbing evidence of organized crime, including the frequent number of Vietnamese nationals in rhino hunting, often on the same game ranches repeatedly; numerous cases whereby Vietnamese ‘trophy hunters’ paid above market price for rhino hunts, but then had to be instructed how to shoot and would forego any proper trophy preparation; the issuance of export permits for rhino trophies to Vietnamese nationals who has previously been identified in ongoing rhino crime investigations …

Finally, South Africa issued export permits in 2007 for six rhino trophies to go to China, another country not traditionally active in trophy hunting in Africa and which did not subsequently report receiving any rhino trophies as imports.

Legal hunting a “smokescreen” for corruption and poaching

Another sobering report. The Myth of Trophy Hunting as Conservation, published by the League Against Cruel Sports, notes that legal trophy hunting provides a smokescreen for poaching and smuggling.

Opening up even a limited legal trade creates a smokescreen for poachers which is almost impossible to police.

One of the most clear-cut examples of the relationship between legal trade and resultant poaching occurred recently when CITES authorized a one-off ivory auction in 2008 to China and Japan.

By stimulating the ivory market, this disastrous lapse in judgement by CITES was likely responsible for the resurgence of widespread illegal elephant killings across Africa, with overwhelming evidence linking the carnage to China’s demand for ivory.

Industry “insiders” suspected in South Africa’s rhino poaching epidemic

According to Ian Michler of Africa Geographic, the bloody business of rhino poaching in South Africa is likely the work of industry insiders.

This is not only because of the numbers killed, but also the manner in which the syndicates are operating: extremely efficiently and effectively.

While it is encouraging that the South African authorities have responded by setting up a new specialised team, the National Wildlife Reaction Unit, to tackle the problem, I believe it is going to require more than this. It is my suspicion that there are insiders at work here and that all involved in dealing with rhino at whatever level need to start carefully reviewing their staff. These syndicates have influential people assisting them who may include rangers, senior managers and private veterinarians.

It has been estimated that every 41 hours, a rhino is illegally killed in South Africa. Poaching levels are at a 15-year high – and on the rise.

Today, the major destinations for illegal rhino horn are China and Vietnam, where rhino horn is believed to be a “remedy” for a long list of common ailments – despite scientific analysis proving that rhino horn has no medicinal effect on humans.

Unfortunately, China’s growing footprint in Africa has put the demand for rhino horn perilously close to the supply – and created an environment that offers irresistible financial temptation to unscrupulous trophy hunters and others in the rhino industry.

The result? A thriving network of poaching and smuggling syndicates poised to undermine decades of rhino conservation efforts.

Photo via International Rhino Foundation

Rhishja Cota-Larson

I am the founder of Annamiticus, an educational nonprofit organization which provides news and information about wildlife crime and endangered species. I am the Editor of Rhino Horn is Not Medicine and Project Pangolin, author of the book Murder, Myths & Medicine, a writer for the environmental news blog Planetsave, the host of Behind the Schemes, and Producer for the upcoming documentary The Price. When I'm not blogging about the illegal wildlife trade, I enjoy gardening, reading, designing, and rocking out to live music.

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