Killing Rhinos for Profit

Julian Rademeyer never set out to investigate rhino horn poaching. Rademeyer, a longtime investigative reporter for a number of South African publications who had never really written about the environment or conservation issues, stumbled into the story. The tipping point was when he came across a story about rifles being smuggled across the border into Zimbabwe to be used to kill rhinos for their horns. The discovery would eventually lead him to quit his job as a reporter and journey through a number of countries tracking the networks behind the global trade in rhino horns. Along the way he would talk to lawmen, mercenaries, corrupt politicians, diplomats, gunrunners and prostitutes. What emerged was the book Killing for Profit, an impressive global investigation that takes readers deep inside the illicit trade in rhino horns. The fact that poachers were decimating rhino populations wasn’t new. Nor was it new that the horns can fetch a hefty price in Asian countries – horns are still worth more per kilogram than gold, platinum, cocaine or heroin. In many Asian countries, especially Vietnam and China, rhino horns are believed to cure ailments like headaches and hangovers, and a single rhino horn can fetch up to US$60,000. The horns are also made into libation cups and are considered a symbol of wealth among the emerging middle class in Asian countries. Illegal wildlife trafficking, of which rhino horns are a significant part, is estimated to be roughly US$20 billion a year enterprise globally, ranking fourth just behind drugs, humans and arms, according to the World Economic Forum. What was new was that Rademeyer approached the story from the standpoint of organised crime, rather than as an environmental or conservation story.

The journey to expose the criminal syndicates behind the sale in rhino horns would last two years and take Rademeyer from southern Africa to the United States and those Asian countries at the centre of the illegal rhino trade – Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. In the book, we come face to face with apartheid-era figures who helped Jonas Savambi, the Angolan rebel leader backed by Pretoria, finance his war against the Angolan government through the illegal sale of wildlife, including rhino horns. It also reveals that the South African Defence Forces engaged in widespread trafficking of wildlife, from rhino horns to ivory. The military covertly involved in the receipt, transportation, sale and export of the items from Angola and Namibia to South Africa. The investigation sheds light on the shadowy world of hunting for sport and lodges who organise the hunts for rhinos. We meet the diminutive Vietnamese women, posing suggestively in pictures over dead rhino, who purport to be hunters, but are in fact fronts for criminal organisations looking to use the legal permits that allow for the hunting of rhino as trophies to procure the horns.

Rademeyer shows that killing of rhino goes beyond southern African poachers, criminals and Asian buyers. He brings to light the involvement of international criminal enterprises such as the Rathkeale Rovers, a global Irish gang implicated in money laundering and drug dealing. He would find that in the United States, rhino horn trafficking is also prevalent and a number of antique dealers and even a former rodeo cowboy have been prosecuted for selling the horns. Still, for all the carnage surrounding the killing of rhinos outlined in the book, Rademeyer also manages to tell the story of the brave and dedicated law enforcement officials, prosecutors, environmentalists and game farmers, who with few resources and amid great danger, work to save the animals. Globally, countries in Europe and the United States have pledged resources to help South Africa fight back against the poaching of rhinos. Former US President Barack Obama signed an executive order calling wildlife trafficking a national security issue.

Sadly, nearly six years after the publication of Killing for Profit, the slaughter of animals continues. According to the most recent poaching statistics, 1,028 rhinos were illegally killed in 2017 in South Africa, which is home to about 80 per cent of the world’s population. That’s 26 fewer rhinos killed than in 2016 but still well above the 13 killed in 2007. Killing for Profit is a meticulously reported and well-written account of the dark underworld of trafficking of rhino horns, its effect on local communities and most of all the creatures who are being killed for the very thing that is supposed to serve as their defence. The book ranks as one of the most important works of investigative reporting to come out of the southern Africa region, exposing the greed, corruption and international demand that has decimated one of the area’s most precious resources – its wildlife.

Killing For Protect: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade
Julian Rademeyer, Zed Press, 2012

23 April 2008: Tommy Tuan is trapped. Spread out on a bed in Room 122 at the Road Lodge in Kimberley are wads of cash. Thick bundles of hundred-rand bills held together with rubber bands. One million, two hundred and eighty thousand rand, plus change. There’s also a duffle bag and ten rhino horns weighing just over twenty kilos. Hidden under an armchair, where he can’t reach it, is a 635mm pistol. Its compact, light and – unless you know what you’re doing – more likely to hurt someone or piss them off than kill them. Outside, in the parking lot is a grey Honda Accord with red diplomatic license plates. But between Tommy and the door are three cops … Tommy arrives in Kimberley after dark and hours late for the meeting with the seller. He goes straight to the Road Lodge and checks into a room. He isn’t alone. He’s brought along a friend to look after the money and act as the bagman during the deal. Tommy calls the seller and asks him to come to the hotel.

The man agrees. He asks Tommy if he’ll mind if the owner of the horn comes along too. Tommy doesn’t. They meet in the parking lot. Tommy tells the men he has brought R1.4 million in cash, but he doesn’t have it with him. He insists on doing the transaction at the Road Lodge and not at another hotel, as originally planned. He doesn’t know the town well and doesn’t want to drive around. He confides that he is scared to go anywhere else, because it could be a ‘police trap’. The men relent. To avoid any misunderstandings about the legality of the deal, they warn Tommy that they don’t have permits for the horns. It won’t be necessary, he says. An hour later, they are back. One of the men carries a heavy duffel bag over his shoulder. Tommy is waiting for them in the lobby and guides them up the stairs to his room on the first floor. They lock the door, shut the windows and close the curtains. There is an electronic scale on a table. Tommy switches it on and begins weighing the horns. On the bed, an ashtray slowly smoulders, filling up with cigarette butts, blackened and burnt to the quick. Tommy jots down the weights in red ink on a scrap of paper. Some of the horns still have ragged pieces of nasal cartilage attached to the bases. The final tally is 20.559 kilograms. Tommy subtracts 200 grams to factor in the unwanted cartilage. At R63,000 a kilo, it comes to a total of R1,282,617. They round the figure off to R1.280 million.

Tommy places a call on his cellphone. A few minutes later, someone raps on the door. Knock. Pause. Knock-knock. Pause. Knock. Satisfied, Tommy unlocks it. A pair of white takkies flashes into view and disappears. Tommy reaches into the corridor, picks up a black carry-bag and returns to the room. He locks the door, then heaves the bag onto the bed and begins unpacking the cash. He is so absorbed in his task that he doesn’t notice one of the men press the green dial button on his cellphone. Somewhere outside, another cellphone rings briefly and then stops. There’s a hard knock at the door. Tommy goes to see who it is. But the seller is already in front of him, pulling on the handle, and then another man pushes his way into the room. He’s saying something. About being a policeman. Tommy freezes. Then the disbelief and shock kick in. Tommy’s wrists are cuffed. The money on the bed is photographed, packed into two large plastic evidence bags, and numbered. Someone finds the pistol, six rounds of 6.35mm ammo and a single 9mm round.

For some time now, the embassy in Brooklyn, Pretoria, has been a thorn in the flesh of the cops investigating the illegal rhino horn trade. Two years before Tommy Tuan’s arrest, police had uncovered evidence that the embassy’s economic attaché, Nguyen Khanh Toan, was using his diplomatic immunity and the diplomatic bag to smuggle rhino horns out of South Africa. There was little they could do about it other than complain. South Africa’s Department of Foreign Affairs wrote a nasty letter to their Vietnamese counterparts and Nguyen was recalled to Vietnam. That same year, in Hanoi, a corruption scandal involving a senior Vietnamese bureaucrat, Nguyen Van Lam, led to further damaging revelations of high-level involvement in the rhino horn trade. Lam – the deputy head of the Vietnamese ‘Government Office’ – had reportedly ‘admitted shortcomings’ in accepting ‘cash gifts’ from state agencies three years earlier. He was forced to resign. The bribes had come to light years earlier after Lam forgot a suitcase at Hanoi Airport in 2003. Security staff opened the case and found ten envelopes inside it, stuffed with cash. Lam’s explanation was startling. He said most of the cash was from ‘friends and colleagues’ who wanted him to buy ‘rhino horns’ for them.

impacting some of the interpreters in the illicit trade. In one instance, police at the Kempton Park Organised Crime Unit obtained a photograph of a man posing next to the carcass of a rhino, rifle in hand. A detective instantly recognised him as one of the interpreters in the trial of a courier who had been arrested at OR Tambo International Airport with rhino horn stuffed in his bag. Two days after Tommy’s arrest, police receive a letter from Dung. He wants his car back. He has an explanation. ‘On 23rd April 2008, Mr. Nguyen Thien Taun, acquaintance [sic] of my relative Nguyen Anh Bao, dropped in my residence and said his car was out of order, and asked Mr. Bao to borrow the car. Then he took my car and went away until yesterday, 24 April when I was informed that my car was catched [sic] by police in Kemberly [sic]. I assure hereby that I know nothing about Mr. Taun’s doing neither the borrowing of the car and would like my car back for use as soon as possible.’ The Department of Foreign Affairs leaned on the cops. Four days later, Ngyuen Anh Bao, armed with a letter from Dung, collects the car in Kimberley.

But Dung’s ignorance will be challenged seven months later. On 17 November 2008, the environmental television programme 50/50 airs grainy surveillance video of a Vietnamese embassy official receiving a number of rhino horns from a known trafficker. The horns are transferred from the boot of a car that has stopped in the street outside the embassy. Dung’s Honda is parked nearby. The recipient of the horns is later identified as Vu Moc Ahn, the embassy first secretary.