Boertjie takes on rhino gang

2011-08-06 00:00

JOHNNY Olivier is a hated man: an insider who became an outsider by blowing the whistle on a multi-million rand international rhino horn trafficking syndicate.

He is waiting for me, uncomfortably out of place among the tourists thronging for pictures with the bronze Madiba in Sandton’s Nelson Mandela Square. Today he is on edge and itching for a cigarette he doesn’t have.

“I want to put things right,” he says to me after we shake hands.

Three months ago Olivier told forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan a remarkable tale of lion bones, rhino horn, money, greed and prostitutes posing as game hunters. He lifted the lid on the activities of a shadowy Laotian company, its Thai middlemen and the ruthless South African safari operators who had found a “legal” way to supply the illegal South-east Asian black market in rhino horn.

O’Sullivan tracked down the shipping agent who had handled the consignments and obtained waybills showing that at least 20 horns had been shipped to the Xaysavang Trading Export-Import company in Laos since October last year.

Over the next six days he amassed 220 pages of documents, including e-mail correspondence and, most damaging of all, an order for 50 rhino placed with a Free State game farmer, Marnus Steyl. The order, on a Xaysavang letterhead, states simply: “1 month can shoot 15 rhino”.

The evidence dovetailed neatly with a parallel investigation that the South African Revenue Service had been conducting into Xaysavang’s activities and gave them and the Hawks key information that led to a series of raids on the company’s South African address.

Olivier had spent time in Thailand, diving in Phuket and doing “piece work”. He had picked up some of the language.

In Johannesburg in about 2008, he was befriended by a Thai man known as “the KK” who, he says, worked as a “station manager” for Thai Airways in Johannesburg.

“KK” in turn introduced him to three Thai citizens who were renting a house from him in Kempton Park and asked Olivier if he could assist them with “some administrative tasks as they were not fluent in English”. He agreed.

One of the men called himself “Peter”. His real name was Punpitak Chunchom and, unbeknown to Olivier, he was a key player in an international wildlife trafficking syndicate.

One of the first “transactions” was the purchase of three rhino horns. “I did all the talking on the phone with the seller. It was something I knew nothing about at the time . I didn’t know about permits or how it all worked.” On September 30, 2008, Olivier, Chunchom and three others were arrested near Delmas in a police sting operation. The seller, they discovered, was an undercover police operative.

Olivier and one of the Thai men were convicted. Chunchom and two others were released due to lack of evidence. A man since identified as a syndicate kingpin paid Olivier’s R120 000 fine.

It would be two years before Olivier would see Chunchom again. “One day I bumped into them again at Emperor’s Palace casino. Their boss loved going there. He could easily lose R30 000 or R40 000 a night and for him it would be a joke.

“I said to them straight: ‘I’m not interested in this crap.’ But then they said they were into lion bones and asked if I’d help them to buy lion bones.

“I went to check on the Internet and discovered that lion bones were not illegal.”

But the trade in lion bones would soon lead back to rhino horn. “Suddenly they discovered there was a loophole in the law that could allow them to get hold of rhino horn ‘legally’ through trophy-hunting,” Olivier said.

Current legislation, which bans trade in rhino horn, does allow for the export of trophies shot by hunters. The only problem they had was that the regulations allow only one rhino per hunter per year. But they soon found a ready pool of “hunters”.

The kingpin — whose name is known to Media24 Investigations, but cannot be published for legal reasons — was described by Olivier as “very clever”.

“He told me he’d been involved in the animal trade for 22 years and had dealt in things like horns, ivory and bones. He had a keen eye. If he looked at the horns on a live rhino he would estimate, for instance, that they weighed 5,3 kg. Once the rhino was shot and the horns removed he would probably be out by 0,5 of a kg. He is very accurate.”

In October last year the syndicate obtained permits to legally hunt two rhinos on a farm in North West province. The trophies were exported to Xaysavang in Laos, not to the “hunters” who had shot them and there, but Olivier believes, they made their way on to the lucrative black market for animal potions and traditional medicines. By December the syndicate was increasingly on the lookout for rhino horn. In an agricultural magazine they found a number for Marnus Steyl, a Free State lion breeder and safari operator.

They approached him to buy lion bones and travelled to his farm in Winburg to examine lion bones he had stored. A sign at the entrance read: “For all your wildlife needs. Steyl Brothers — We do it in ‘Steyl’”.

“That’s how it began,” Olivier said.

Chunchom would arrange the “hunters” and obtain passports, which Olivier would scan in and e-mail to Steyl who would apply for the hunting permits. Steyl denies any wrongdoing. Later Olivier discovered that Chunchom was approaching young Thai women through friends in South Africa or recruiting them in strip clubs and brothels around Johannesburg and Midrand.

Media24 Investigations has confirmed this. In a separate interview two Thai women confirmed they had been paid R5 000 each to accompany members of the syndicate to farms where rhinos were hunted. They claimed they had been made to pose next to the carcasses of dead rhinos holding rifles but were adamant they never fired a shot.

“The Thai people are very poor people,” Olivier said. “Most of them support their families and children back in Thailand. R5 000 is a lot of money.” The syndicate members spent money like water. According to Olivier, Chunchom frequently expressed contempt for police, saying: “In South Africa, you can do anything if you have money.” Matters finally came to a head between Olivier and Chumchom over the drunken orgies the syndicate members frequently held at the house they rented when the kingpin was out of town.

Olivier, a teetotaler, describes them as a “bunch of drunkards”.

When the landlady, an elderly woman, complained to Olivier, he confronted Chunchom who grabbed him by the shirt.

“I did a bit of Thai boxing in my youth and knew what was coming,” Olivier said. I also knew that I had to moer him within three minutes because I’m getting old and I can’t last longer than three minutes.

“I aimed nicely and cracked him with my head and there he lay. He didn’t know a boertjie could hit that hard.” To this day Chunchom has a scar on his forehead. A short while later Olivier received an email containing the order for 50 rhino.

“Then I knew for sure. This wasn’t about trophies anymore. This was about poaching.”

Chunchom was arrested last month for the illegal possession of lion bones. He paid a R10 000 fine and was expelled from South Africa. An alleged syndicate kingpin, Chumlong Lemtongthai, is due to appear in court on August 12.

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