Animals BW photo of rhino in crosshairs

Published on June 22nd, 2011 | by Rhishja Cota-Larson

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Mules Hunting Rhinos? Sinister Scam Unfolds in South Africa

June 22nd, 2011 by

Thanks to trophy hunt loopholes in South Africa, rhino horn smugglers have found a way to acquire their contraband legally.

As part of the sinister organized crime network that is controlling the illegal rhino horn trade, these “mules” (often women) are actually using “hunting safaris” as a front for running rhino horn from South Africa to Vietnam.

One rhino horn-running expedition was foiled in January 2011, when a Vietnamese woman and her male companion were arrested at the Wonderboom Airport in South Africa, following a search that revealed four rhino horns in their luggage.

The horns were from two rhinos that the pair killed on a legal hunt which took place on a farm in Limpopo Province, South Africa.

Since these horns were not properly mounted by a taxidermist and microchipped – legal requirements for exporting trophies – it is unlikely they were destined for the trophy wall.

Disturbed by the photo above? Then take a look at Tran Thu Hien, the would-be rhino horn smuggler arrested at the Wonderboom Airport.

Her photo gallery can be viewed here.

Shortly after making a court appearance, Tran was released on R40,000 (USD $5,483) bail.

Rhino-sized loopholes

The scam seems to have started in 2003, when CITES permits were issued for nine rhino trophies and two rhino horns to be exported to Vietnam, a country that had not previously been active in trophy hunting.

What followed was alarming: The number of rhino horn exports to Vietnam suddenly increased to 58 in 2006, 73 in 2007 – until a total of 268 rhino horns were reported for the period 2006 – 2009.

However, significant reporting discrepancies were found – suggesting that the figure of 268 rhino horns was actually under-reported.

Whilst this number seems high, Vietnamese nationals reportedly conducted 203 white rhino hunts in South Africa in 2005 – 2007, which would have yielded 406 rhino horns; South African exports, however, only account for 268 horns exported to Viet Nam during this same time period, suggesting that one-third of these hunts took place without the subsequent acquisition of CITES documents.

Investigations by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC revealed that South African hunters were willing participants in the rhino horn laundering scheme.

The frequent involvement of a small number of Vietnamese nationals, 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 completely forego any proper trophy preparation; the issuance of export permits for rhino trophies to Vietnamese nationals who had previously been identified in ongoing rhino crime investigations …

Several professional hunters are also implicated in South Africa’s high-profile “Groenewald gang” rhino horn trafficking case.

WARNING: THIS VIDEO CONTAINS IMAGES OF HUNTING.

(Note about the video: Since no source has been found for the “cancer rumor”, my opinion is that it is more likely a marketing ploy concocted by those who are profiting from the rhino horn myth and preying on terminally patients and their families. )

Clients and … coincidences?

In January 2011, Mossel Bay hunter Christaan Frederik van Wyk was ordered to pay a fine of R30,000 (US $4,246) for illegally shooting a white rhino.

Van Wyk’s conviction stemmed from a hunting expedition with a Vietnamese client in Leshoka Thabang Game Lodge, on April 27th, 2006.

A December 2010 article in Bloomberg noted that South African hunter Peter Thormahlen had at least two earlier brushes with the law regarding Vietnamese hunting clients.

Even Peter Thormahlen has been prosecuted for leading hunts feeding the horn trade. In 2006 at the Loskop Dam Nature Game Reserve, he paid a token fine after his Vietnamese hunter casually told an official that he did not know how to shoot.

The second time, in Limpopo province in 2008, Thormahlen was indignant and fought the citation in court with the help of lawyer Tom Dreyer.

Thormahlen’s second case was dismissed.

(As I mentioned in an interview last month, an audit of South Africa’s legal rhino trade could very revealing.)

Horns in Hanoi

In July 2010, a Vietnamese court sentenced Tran Van Lap of Hanoi to three years in jail for attempting to transport five rhino horns from South Africa to Vietnam.

It is noteworthy that four of the horns were obtained by Lap via a legal rhino hunt – however, authorities suspected that the documentation had been falsified.

How to help

Take the first step: Help expose these illegal activities – and educate others about the rhino horn myth – by sharing this article.

Learn more at:

Images: © iStockphoto.com

Additional sources:

Milliken, T., Emslie, R.H., Talukdar, B. (2009). African and Asian Rhinoceroses – Status, Conservation and Trade. CoP15. CITES Secretariat, Geneva, Switzerland.

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About the Author

Rhishja is the founder of Annamiticus, a nonprofit organization which provides educational information and news about wildlife crime and endangered species. Rhishja has journeyed to the streets of Hanoi to research the illegal wildlife trade, and to the rainforests of Sumatra and Java to document the world’s rarest rhinos. At CITES CoP16 in Bangkok, she joined colleagues from around the world to lobby in favor of protecting endangered species from economic exploitation. When Rhishja is not blogging about the illegal wildlife trade, she enjoys gardening, reading, designing, and rocking out to live music.



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