South African Veterinarians Under Scrutiny, Possible Links to Rhino Killings?

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Are unaccounted for veterinary drugs connected to the illegal rhino horn trade?


Concerns are mounting about the role of South African veterinarians in the burgeoning rhino crisis, as now at least six veterinarians have been arrested in connection with rhino crimes since 2010.

Three of which — private veterinarian Johannes G. Kruger, state veterinarian Buti J. Chibase, and noted Kruger National Park (KNP) veterinarian Douw Grobler — have been apprehended in the past six months alone.

The trio is suspected of unlawfully supplying scheduled veterinary drugs to crime syndicates involved in the rampant massacre of rhinos.

In the midst of it all, another veterinarian, Dr. Johan Hendrik Meyer, has been reprimanded by the South African Veterinary Council (SAVC) for illegally distributing copious amounts of a controlled substance known to be used by rhino butchers, apparently to an unnamed person for unclear reasons.

26 bottles of M99

In November, the SAVC’s monthly newsletter revealed that the board had taken disciplinary action against the Boksburg-based veterinarian for unethical conduct.

A leaked document emerged later, telling more of the story.

Apparently, Dr. Meyer had illegally dispensed 26 bottles of M99 to an individual who was not qualified to possess or use the drug.

He claimed it was done under an agreement that the drugs would be used ‘in the training of students from the Department of Nature Conservation’ and that this went on for the duration of one year – from July 2008 to July 2009.

The doctor asserted that he had terminated the arrangement on his own accord, upon realizing that the narcotic was ‘possibly not being used for the purpose that he had agreed to supply them’.

No information has been released on the identity of said layperson nor have any details been provided regarding the actual use of the narcotics.

According to the SAVC, resultant complaints filed against Meyer were first reviewed by the their Investigation Committee in late March 2010, which prompted an eight-month long formal inquiry into the matter.

In November of that year, the Council determined that the vet’s actions had violated both their own policies, as well as the Medicines and Related Substances Act – national legislation that restricts the use and possession of M99 to qualified veterinarians only.

Part of these contraventions included his failure to follow up on the use of the drugs and to ensure that the procedures in which they had used were carried out appropriately.

Meyer apparently appealed their decision, explaining that he had not committed the acts with wrongful intentions, as he had, at the time, believed the layperson’s claims about how the substance would be used.

He added that he had not profited from the transaction because he sold the medication at cost and asked that the Council should keep in mind that he had no previous convictions throughout his 27 years in this profession.

Disagreements

Apparently, the Council and its Inquiry Body had many disagreements about the appropriate disciplinary action to take against Dr. Meyer, but finally delivered a sentence in December 2011 — almost two years after the initial complaints were reviewed.

Suspension for a period of 6 (six) months.

This penalty is wholly suspended for 10 years on the following conditions:

  1. He is not found guilty of a similar transgression during the period in which the penalty is suspended;
  2. He immediately pays a fine of R25,000-00; and
  3. He writes a referenced article for publication in the SAVC Newsletter, March 2012, on the impact of the misuse of scheduled medicines on the veterinary profession.

The announcement drew heated criticism from fellow members of the veterinary field and concerned citizens alike.

A recent Mail & Guardian article reports that some of Meyer’s colleagues have declared the penalty ‘disgusting’ and a mere ‘slap on the wrist’.

Some even accused the Council of ‘failing the profession badly by not dealing with the problem’.

Many feel the government should be deeply concerned about this case, especially because of the growing use of M99 in the ongoing rhino carnage.

‘Hundreds’ of rhinos

Understandably, some have been left wondering if it’s possible that the narcotics in question were involved in these criminal acts.

M99 is typically sold in 10.5 milliliter (ml) bottles, which each contain about 102.9 mg of the drug.

In normal, veterinarian-controlled situations where rhinos are anesthetized for capture or medical procedures, it seems M99 is administered in doses ranging from 0.5 – 10 mg.

Around three to five mg seems to be standard, based on reports from several studies published in scientific literature.

Additionally, it is possible that rhino horn syndicates are using greater quantities, in order to decrease the time it takes for the animal to become immobile and to ensure success in bringing it down.

If the aforementioned ten mg were to be used, for example, a single 10.5 ml vial of the drug may be used for as few as ten rhinos.

Based on these figures, 26 units of M99 could have been used to dart hundreds — perhaps between 260-884 — rhinos.

M99 chopper attacks

Although it must be made clear that no reference has been made to indicate that Dr. Meyer’s acts were related to rhino crimes, the fact that this drug is being used to violently obtain the animals’ horns for sale in black market trade cannot be dismissed.

Interestingly, a surge in “M99 chopper attacks” did occur during and immediately following the year-long period (July 2008-July 2009) that narcotics were allegedly supplied to the unnamed individual.

By the time the SAVC launched its inquisition in March 2010, there had been at least four of these occurrences in the Gauteng province alone – the region from which Dr. Meyer apparently operates.

According to South Africa’s Independent Online, the rise in these disturbing incidents between 2008 and 2010 had occurred most often in the Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Free State, and North West provinces.

In the past, these attacks have tragically resulted in the eventual death of the animals, but recently there has been an increasing number of survivors.

  • In December 2011, Africa Geographic posted a horrific photo of one of two rhinos that survived an M99 attack at Fairy Glen Game Reserve in the Western Cape.
  • Another two survived a similar incident that took place at the Kariega Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal last week, according to the Port Elizabeth Herald.

For more information about M99, check out M99: Veterinary Drug is a Killer in the Hands of Unscrupulous Individuals.


Image: ©Bhatti Ijaz

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. I am deeply concerned about what is going on in South Africa regarding our rhinos, as I’m sure are many of the citizens of our country. Short of the drastic measure of cutting off every horn of every living rhino, I’m not sure of which measures can be taken to curtail the murders of these magnificent animals. What I do know is that I don’t want to end up living in a world where the only rhinos my grandchildren will know are the ones they see in pictures. They are OUR rhinos, the heritage of every Southern African, being sold out and murdered by a greedy few.