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Enterprising criminals in Southeast Asia behind surge in big-game rhino hunting in South Africa

NEW YORK — In 2003, enterprising criminals in Southeast Asia realised that they could exploit a loophole in South Africa’s hunting laws to move rhino horns legally across international borders.

Enterprising criminals in Southeast Asia behind surge in big-game rhino hunting in South Africa

A Thai woman, who was hired to hunt rhino in South Africa, poses with her trophy.

NEW YORK — In 2003, enterprising criminals in Southeast Asia realised that they could exploit a loophole in South Africa’s hunting laws to move rhino horns legally across international borders. Normally, North Americans and Europeans account for the bulk of South Africa’s rhino hunting permits. But that year, 10 Vietnamese “hunters” quietly applied as well.

Hunters are allowed to transport legally obtained trophies across borders under various international and domestic laws. The Vietnamese hunters each returned home with the mounted horn, head or even whole body of a rhino.

Word spread. Though Vietnam and other Asian countries have no history of big-game sport hunting, South Africa was soon inundated with applicants from Asia, who sometimes paid US$85,000 (S$116,135) or more to shoot a single white rhino.

That marked the beginning of an illicit industry referred to as pseudo-hunting — a first step toward the rhino poaching crisis that rages today. And the story of one of its chief practitioners shows the lengths to which criminals will go to move wildlife contraband.

No one knows just how many rhino horns were actually sent back to Asia as purported hunting trophies. South Africa has records of more than 650 rhino trophies leaving the country for Vietnam from 2003 to 2010 — goods worth some US$200 million to US$300 million on the black market. Vietnam, however, has corresponding paperwork for only a fraction.

By 2012, South African investigators had identified at least five Vietnamese-run criminal syndicates exploiting the pseudo-hunting loophole. Chumlong Lemtongthai, a Thai citizen, and his band of gun-toting prostitutes were surely the most remarkable of those gangs.

To acquire more hunting permits, Lemtongthai hired more than two dozen women to pose as hunters. The women received around US$550 just to hand over copies of their passports and to take a brief “holiday” with Lemtongthai and his men in South Africa.

Lemtongthai likely would have gotten away with the scheme were it not for Johnny Olivier, a fixer and interpreter in South Africa. Mr Olivier worked for Lemtongthai, but after 50 or so rhino kills, his conscience began to nag at him.

“This is not trophies or whatever,” Mr Olivier said. “This is now getting into slaughtering, purely for money. These rhinos are my nation’s inheritance.”

Mr Olivier discussed Lemtongthai’s dealings with a private investigator, who began digging. The investigator eventually compiled 222 pages of evidence.

When the case went to court in 2012, South African prosecutors described Lemtongthai as the mastermind behind “one of the biggest swindles in environmental crime history.” To Lemtongthai’s shock, and that of many observers, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

It was a punishment unheard-of in its severity, especially in a country with notoriously low rates of conviction for alleged wildlife crimes. Of 317 arrests related to rhino poaching in 2015, for example, just 15 percent resulted in guilty verdicts.

But Lemtongthai served nowhere near 40 years. In 2014, Lemtongthai’s sentence was reduced to 13 years in prison, plus a fine of about US$78,000.

This month, South Africa granted Lemtongthai early release after serving six years. Amid an uproar of criticism from conservation groups and government officials, he was swiftly deported to Thailand.

It’s not often you get to talk to a man convicted of systematic rhino slaughter. I interviewed Lemtongthai at the Pretoria Central Correction Center on a sunny Sunday morning in October 2016.

The guards led me into a spartan office where I found Lemtongthai seated on a bench near the wall, wearing an orange jumpsuit with “Corrections” written in circular patterns all over it. Wire-rimmed glasses framed his dark eyes, and his hair, once dyed black, was shaved short and gray, matching the stubble around his chin and upper lip.

I introduced myself, turned on my tape recorder and told him that I was there to hear his story. After some hesitation — he didn’t appreciate how the press had depicted him in the past, without even speaking to him, he said — he agreed to talk.

“Can you tell me about your involvement with rhino hunting?” I began.

In a gush of broken English, Lemtongthai told me that he was a legitimate businessman who recruited Asian tourists to hunt in South Africa. “I get tourists to shoot, I get commission,” he said. “I’m never poaching. I go legal way.”

He described having what he thought were legitimate hunting permits, only to be arrested by South African police for fraud and railroaded into jail after signing what he believed was an agreement to pay a fine.

Soon enough, he was practically shaking, his eyes wide, his voice high.

“He said lie to me, my lawyer! Rhino farmer go home, me go to jail 40 years!”

The way he told it, it did sound possible that Lemtongthai had been a scapegoat for savvier criminals who took advantage of his ignorance to help get rhino horns out of the country.

According to South African and Thai authorities and conservationists, Lemtongthai’s boss was Vixay Keosavang, a Lao national once called the Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking. He has denied involvement in trafficking, and Lemtongthai told me he had not had any contact with Keosavang after his arrest.

“Vixay never talk. Only me, ‘kingpin,'” Lemtongthai scoffed. “Company, friend, family — never talk to me.”

Mr. Big Doesn’t Matter

Lemtongthai’s case illustrates one of the most profound obstacles to disrupting the international trade in illegal wildlife: the decentralised, constantly morphing networks along which poached goods are transported.

South Africa tightened its sport hunting rules after Lemtongthai was arrested, and in the overall story of the illegal wildlife trade, pseudo-hunting proved a “temporary sideshow,” as Mr Ronald Orenstein, a conservationist, put it in his book “Ivory, Horn and Blood.”

Straight-up poaching and trafficking now dominate. Yet many of the players are still the same.

Again and again, Lemtongthai and Keosavang’s associates from a decade ago, or longer, have turned up in wildlife trafficking cases, among them Bach “Boonchai” Mai, arrested by Thai police this year.

But because of the way the poaching and trafficking networks work, taking down any one of these supposed kingpins will not stop the illegal trade.

To get their prize, rhino poachers — who are often desperately poor local men living on the fringes of parks and reserves — tend to sneak in under cover of darkness, sometimes during the full “poacher’s moon,” as it’s often called.

Once in the park, they usually wait until first light to kill a rhino. Afterward, they may await well-organized pickups, or they may bury the horn for later retrieval. Others simply run home with the horn as quickly as they can.

After a horn — or a tusk, bag of bones, box of scales or other animal contraband — is smuggled out of a park, the goods are usually transferred along a chain of “runners” who take them to larger and larger cities. At some point, Asian businessmen based in Africa are likely to get involved — generally Vietnamese bosses for rhino horn, Chinese bosses for ivory.

Once the contraband begins its trafficking journey, the route often isn’t direct. A China-bound ivory shipment may be sent first to Spain from Togo, or else a passenger carrying rhino horn may fly to Dubai before heading to Kuala Lumpur and then to Hong Kong.

Trafficking bosses themselves are often also involved in legitimate and even well-known local businesses.

In the West, “organised criminals live in a somewhat parallel society,” said Mr Tim Wittig, a conservation scientist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. But among wildlife traffickers, “the big criminals are typically also big business people.”

“Usually, they’re involved in logistics-type businesses — trading or shipping companies, for example — or in commodity-based ones, which is why it’s easy for them to move things around,” he added.

These individuals are sometimes referred to as kingpins, a term that experts say is overused.

“In some ways, chasing after a Mr. Big behind it all is a bit of a myth,” said Mr Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with Traffic, a conservation group, and author of “Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade.”

One of the most important characteristics of poaching and smuggling networks is their diversity, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on international crime at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

While some networks are highly organised, others are completely dispersed. A dealer smuggling ivory out of an African port may not know the local boss overseeing poaching or the trader who eventually sells the contraband in Asia.

In the cartels run by just one or a few individuals, vacuums left by arrests are quickly filled.

That is why these convictions, even high-profile ones like Lemtongthai’s, usually have little effect on shutting down illegal trade — in wildlife, drugs or any other kind of contraband, Felbab-Brown pointed out.

Changing this largely depends on changing the way the world addresses illegal wildlife trade.

Mr John Sellar, formerly chief of enforcement for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, has argued that we should instead just think of wildlife trafficking more simply as a crime, not a conservation issue.

But most of those tasked with fighting this type of crime are conservationists, rangers and wildlife managers. Mr Sellar and other experts argue this job should instead be assigned to police, detectives, money-laundering experts and the courts.

Breaking up the decentralised criminal networks of poachers, experts say, will require the building of new networks among those who oppose the decimation of animal species. Arresting a few “kingpins” here and there will never be a substitute.

“If the genie in the bottle were to grant me just one wish to combat international wildlife crime, I would ask that everyone work more collaboratively,” Mr Sellar has written. “I remain convinced, utterly convinced, that we would make major inroads into combating international wildlife crime if we could only get our act together.”  NEW  YORK TIMES

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