Book review – Lifting the veil on rhino poaching’s dastardly cast

2013-01-20 10:00

Julian Rademeyer is fresh from another wildlife sting operation in west Africa when we meet for coffee in Parkhurst.

His latest adventure has given him a light cough.

“I should have that checked out,” he says.

“It might be from spending too much time in those smuggled birdcages.”

Since the release of his book about rhino poaching, Killing for Profit, he is now very much in the thick of exposing wildlife trafficking’s sordid underbelly.

“Joburg is pretty much the wildlife-trafficking capital of the world,” he says.

“The stories you can find close to OR Tambo.”

An investigative journalist of many years, Rademeyer is used to hanging out with unsavoury characters, such as the notorious Radovan Krejcir, but it was only a few years ago that he stumbled on to the lucrative wildlife-trading market.

Veteran game ranger Ian Player once wrote: “The screams of agony from rhino that have had their horns chopped off while still alive should reach into the hearts of all of us.”

Rademeyer says when he first read those words, he had no idea what Player meant.

“Months later, I heard those terrible dying cries for the first time. They have stayed with me ever since.”

What comes across in Killing for Profit is that, despite his condemnation of the wildlife traffickers, Rademeyer understands them.

“I don’t agree with the practices of these wildlife traffickers. But with the money involved, I can certainly understand why they do it.”

In Asia, a gram of rhino horn is worth more than cocaine, heroin or even gold.

“I didn’t set out to investigate rhino poaching,” he says.

“I’d seen the articles, read the angry comments. But I hadn’t taken much note. At the time, I was mired in a seemingly endless pursuit of corrupt politicians.”

Then, quite by chance, he came across a story of a farm attack near Musina linked to a poaching incident in Zimbabwe involving smuggled guns. That was the beginning.

“The more I dug, the more horrified I became – horrified at the tales of a ruthless criminal enterprise on a scale that I could not have imagined,” he says.

Rademeyer’s book has a cast of thoroughly dastardly characters – poachers, killers, pimps, gunrunners, spies, corrupt soldiers, mercenaries, prostitutes, politicians and diplomats – who all want to profit from dead rhinos.

The book looks as far back as the horn and ivory smuggling of the 1980s Angolan border war, which the South African military participated in, partly to support Jonas Savimbi’s Unita forces.

This large-scale wildlife smuggling operation led all the way to the US. The book also covers more recent events, such as the Thai prostitute rhino-hunting scandal.

What makes it such a compelling read is Rademeyer’s access to the players. He visits Dawie Groenewald on his farm and lives to tell the tale.

He drinks coffee with Johnny Olivier, who lived with the Vietnamese national Chumlong Lemtongthai and his band of merry men.

He interviews the pimps who organised the girls for the prostitute safari.

And the same players involved in human trafficking, corruption and drug-running pop up again in rhino trafficking.

Even controversial maverick investigator Paul O’Sullivan makes an appearance, fighting the good fight.

“These people have a story to tell,” he says about the access he was given.

“They just want someone to listen.”

Although suave hunter Marnus Steyl told Rademeyer to go to hell.

What the book makes horrifyingly clear is the abuse of the hunting permit system in South Africa.

Unscrupulous professional hunters find loopholes to make a pretty penny.

Some, such as hunter Chris van Wyk, are straightforward about how it works and see nothing wrong, as long as it’s legal.

The ethics are another matter. Others wanted Rademeyer to pay a fee upfront before even discussing their modus operandi.

Have any of the dodgy hunters in his book been in touch since the book came out?

Rademeyer laughs. “Not a peep,” he says. “Not even from the lawyers.”

But getting the inside story from the South African cast was not enough. Using a travel grant, Rademeyer travelled to the belly of the beast in the East, Vietnam and Laos, to understand.

He tried to find one of the trade’s kingpins, but only attracted a few disagreeable men to his hotel.

Luckily, he was already on a flight to Hong Kong by then.

Rademeyer provides an eye-opening glimpse into the world of those who profit from the deaths of the ancient, embattled rhino.

It is a nasty glimpse indeed.

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