Rhino Crimes: Are the Right People Going to Jail?


Alarming trends suggest that continued leniency towards unscrupulous ‘game-industry white guys’ is contributing to South Africa’s rhino crisis.

The recent 25-year jail sentences dealt to three Mozambican nationals convicted of slaughtering rhinos was indeed encouraging news from the battle to save South Africa’s rhinos.

However, it must be noted that proper punishment continues to evade higher-ranking rhino horn profiteers.

Hiding behind the cloak of conservation

Unscrupulous individuals hiding behind the cloak of conservation are ferociously plundering South Africa’s rhinos.

Instead of joining South Africa’s battle to protect its rhinos, a corrupt minority of game farmers, professional hunters, and wildlife veterinarians have chosen to exchange their ethics for ill-gotten financial rewards.

Indeed, this cesspool of deceit has catapulted South Africa into the unfortunate position of being the lead supplier of illegal rhino horn for the rapacious black market.

The long unspoken truth no longer so hush-hush

TRAFFIC’s Dr. Tom Milliken, an expert on rhino horn and ivory trade, recently expressed his concern about this unsavory situation in a Business Day article about the stern sentencing of the Mozambican rhino killers.

We have now moved into serious deterrence territory, at last. But the proof in the pudding will be if those South African game-industry white guys who are involved in rhino crime get similar sentences. Then we’ll start to see things turned around.

Indeed, it is increasingly clear that weak criminal apprehension and (especially) pervasive failure in the justice system have become chronic obstacles to dismantling the upper levels of organized crime syndicates that frequently operate under the guise of “conservation-focused” business ventures.

Is the justice system biased in favor of ‘game-industry white guys’ when it comes to rhino crimes?

Alarming trends observed in recent years evidence the depth of the issues stemming from unchecked corruption in South Africa’s game industry.

Although hundreds of arrests have been made, South Africa’s conviction rates for rhino crimes remain deplorably low across the board – consistently less than five percent and even as low as 2.6% in 2010.

And despite indications unethical members of the conservation field are contributing to the carnage, only five percent of the summed 397 rhino-related arrests made in South Africa between 2010 and 2011 (as reported by the World Wildlife Fund) were “white guys”.

Since 2006, 29 “white guys” have been arrested in connection with rhino crimes, and of them:

  • Only 2 were sentenced to jail time (the same individuals also seem to be the only ones that have ever been denied bail)
  • Over 93% were granted bail, which has ranged in amounts from
    R3 000-R100 000 (US $397-$13,236)
  • 17% were repeat offenders
  • More than 20% worked in the veterinary field
  • More than 20% were professional hunters
  • Around 17% were safari operators
  • At least about 72% own, were employed at, or work closely with game farms
  • Cases against at least 34.5% of the suspects seem to still be pending, and only half of them are have been scheduled for an upcoming court date
  • Cases against at least 17% of the accused have seemingly vanished
  • Cases against nearly 14% were thrown out of the courts
  • At least 2 have publicly lobbied for the legalization of rhino horn trade

Repeat offenders

Shockingly, six of the 29 individuals arrested since 2006 had faced prior charges for contravening conservation laws, many of them rhino-related.

  • Gideon van Deventer was actually out on bail for illegally trading rhino horns in 2006, when he was caught red-handed slaying rhinos just three months later.
  • Professional hunter, Peter Thormahlen, had been hit with a “token fine” in 2006 for illegally hunting a rhino (on behalf of a Vietnamese client), before he was brought to court again two years later on identical charges. (Thormahlen is associated with John Hume, who appears to be a figurehead amongst aspiring rhino horn capitalists in South Africa and, according to iolNews, he also coincidentally owns the world’s largest private collection of rhinos.)
  • Professional hunter, Christaan van Wyk, had already been twice convicted of rhino horn offenses when he was found guilty of illegally hunting a rhino (also on behalf of his Vietnamese client) in 2010.
  • Eight years before being collared in 2011 on suspicions that he may have been supplying rhino assassins with controlled veterinary drugs, wildlife veterinarian Dr. Douw Grobler was fired as head of Kruger National Park’s game capture unit. South African television news show, Carte Blanche, reported that Grobler was found guilty on nine of thirteen misconduct charges stemming from multiple suspicious, unethical business transactions he made with a game farmer that had been contracted by KNP to undertake a controversial buffalo breeding project on his property.
  • Prior to the 2011 arrest of professional hunter and game farmer, Hugo Ras, for unlawful possession of scheduled veterinary drugs and an unlicensed firearm, the man had thrice been fined for assault and “crimen injuria” convictions, as well as for contravening conservation and customs laws.
  • Suspected syndicate mastermind Dawie Groenewald’s criminal history is remarkably extensive – including a long list of international complaints, lawsuits, and criminal allegations and convictions – and far pre-dates his 2010 rhino-related arrest. Among other things, he was terminated from his job as a police officer for involvement in an organized crime ring that was smuggling stolen cars into Zimbabwe and also has a felony conviction in the US for unlawfully importing a leopard trophy (a violation of the Lacey Act). Apparently, the leopard, unbeknownst to the hunter at the time, had been illegally hunted, as Groenewald never had the required permits necessary to kill the animals. Despite there being verifiable evidence, it seems he has not been charged in South Africa for conducting this illegal hunt.

‘Disappearing’ court cases?

After being postponed numerous times, there has been a glaring lack of follow up information published regarding cases involving at least five of the 29 suspects nabbed for rhino crimes since 2006.

  • A case against professional game capturer and rhino horn commerce proponent, Coena Smith, was postponed at least twice after his February 2010 arrest for allegedly selling 300 kg of stockpiled rhino horns and, although last scheduled to appear in February 2011, the status of the case does not seem to be available.
  • After Stephan Johnson and Aneclayton Rademeyer were charged with illegally purchasing rhino horns in 2010, their trial was postponed until a later date. Why have the details of this case not been publicized?
  • Veterinarian Dr. Andre Charles Uys, was arrested in 2010 on allegations that he had illegally dehorned 15 rhinos and – following at least two postponements – was most recently scheduled to appear in court in March 2011. Again, no updates have been made on the status of this trial. And in August 2011, Uys stated the following on a website called saverhino.blogspot.com which advocates legal rhino horn trade: “The alternative is legalising the trade in horn, and controlling it so that each and every horn is traceable to the farm of origin (possible with many other agricultural products), and allowing a market to develop where supply, demand and price balance each other out.” (Update: A July 2011 article in Zoutpansberger reports that the case against Dr. Uys has been dropped.)
  • Jan Karel Pieter Els and game farm manager, Tom Fourie, were both arrested for purportedly trading 36 horns in 2010 and were expected to be in court in January of 2011 (after their case was postponed on at least one occasion). However, Fourie tragically committed suicide before the set date and because no further information has been released on Els’ case, it remains unknown where it stands today.

Perpetually postponed and pending

In addition to the thought-to-be pending cases mentioned above, another five are expected to appear in court again this year, as a result of bench-imposed deferments.

  • After being postponed since his arrest last year, Dr. Grobler is expected to kick off the 2012 “white guy” trials with his 28 February court date.
  • Now running on their third rescheduling, the “Groenewald Gang” is scheduled to appear in court on 24 April.
  • Game farm manager, Jan Louis Lessing, will be back in the courtroom on 29 March, after his case was deferred from his arrest late last month on charges for possession of rhino horns, elephant tusks, and illegal firearms.
  • After being busted last year for his involvement in an international rhino and lion murdering ring (his duty seems to have been passing Thai strippers off as trophy hunters), well-known safari operator Marnus Steyl will grace a South African court with his presence once again in June.
  • The case against Hugo Ras has also been postponed until August 2012.

These ‘insider’ issues have existed from the start of the modern wave of rhino massacres

The first major rhino horn syndicate, dubbed the “Boere Mafia“, was brought into the nation’s justice system in 2006 – a group of safari operators, hunters, game farm and lodge owners, and a Port Elizabeth-based Chinese consortium.

The operation’s alleged masterminds (Saaiman Hunting Safaris owner, Gert Saaiman, and Sandhurst Safaris owner, George Fletcher, along with Frans van Deventer) had much of their assets seized by the government and faced multiple charges, including racketeering, money laundering, various counts of theft, malicious damage to property and contraventions of the various provincial Conservation Acts and the Aviation Act.

In line with current trends, all three were released on bail amounting to R50 000 (US $6,600) each, despite apparently having killed at least 19 rhinos in national parks and on private game reserves.

Yet, after the key witness, Frans’ brother Gideon van Deventer, was purportedly intimidated into refusing to testify against them in 2010, the presiding judge dismissed the case as “struck from the roll” on the grounds that the charges unjustly stemmed from arrests made four years earlier and that the prosecutor’s litigation was largely based on the questionable testimony of a convicted felon.

Although the case did yield perhaps the only bail denials and prison sentences dealt to “white guys” for rhino crimes over the past six years (a five year term reduced by half for Nicholaas van Deventer and a ten year stint plea bargained down to eight for his repeat offender brother, Gideon), Gert, George, and Frans have essentially walked away scot-free.

Another suspected member of the crime ring, Pieter Swart, was also found guilty of purchasing rhino horns, fined R50 000 (US $6,600), and issued a suspended three year jail sentence, should he fail to complete payment of his fine.

The ‘Groenewald Gang’

In September of 2010, the world was stunned by the arrests of eleven people in South Africa on what would later be a total of 1,872 charges related to their involvement in yet another rhino horn syndicate.

Now commonly referred to as the “Groenewald Gang“, the accused include safari operators, veterinarians and their assistants, professional hunters, a helicopter pilot, businessmen, and farm workers.

The group is alleged to have killed hundreds of rhinos and since their arrests, it has been revealed that the ring leader Groenewald (with the assistance of his wildlife veterinarian accomplice, Karel Toet) purchased at least 36 rhinos from Kruger National Park between June and July of 2009 and a mass grave containing roughly 20 de-horned rhino corpses was discovered on the Groenewalds’ “Pragtig” farm property in Musina.

As with so many others, all of those arrested were immediately released on bail and, though suspected syndicate mastermind, Dawie Groenewald, was initially dealt a record high bail — R1 million (over US $132,000) — it was later reduced by 90%, upon his request to the court.

Shockingly, it appears that Groenewald also continues to receive permits from the government to “hunt or convey” rhinos, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence to back the criminal allegations made against him.

From bad to worse

Despite having now had at least six years to develop improved methods for dealing with the corruption running rife throughout South Africa’s game industry, we’ve only see the rhino crisis worsen and intensify.

These iconic creatures are now being violently exterminated from our planet at an unfathomable rate of at least one every 19-20 hours, on average.

(As of this writing, unconfirmed sources outside the media claim at least 40 rhinos have been killed in South Africa in 2012.)

Yes, the source of the crisis is the ravenous, traditional Chinese medicine-based demand for the animal’s medicinally ineffective, keratinous horns.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s rhino horn “suppliers” cannot be overlooked — suppliers who are eager to profit from a predatory scheme that aims to market rhino horn to cancer-stricken families.

Alas, there will be little hope for halting or even slowing the rhino crisis, until the international community and South African authorities effectively and transparently address what lies at the crux of the problem: the very game industry that once spared the country’s magnificent rhino from extinction.

Edited by Rhishja Cota-Larson

Image created by author.

Sarah Pappin

I am a writer for Saving Rhinos, as well as for her sister blog, Project Pangolin. You may know me from my previous role at Bush Warriors. I am a biologist-turned-writer, with a BSc in wildlife science from Oregon State University. When I'm not blogging, I enjoy loud music, creating art, hula hooping, and being outdoors.

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  1. Thank you for keeping tabs on these court cases. I am going to forward your article to Adv de Lange’s secretary at the Parliamentary Committee. Also, did you hear that the Dstv TV program Carte Blanche is going to go a follow up story about the rhino poachings soon. You can submit this story on their website. Please do! I will also copy and paste it and send it to them.

  2. Thanks for this very informative document. Great work. Sure Bush Warriors miss you xx Keep up the great investigative work. There are still a lot of names to be added here :(