Wildlife trafficking: Safari operator key supplier of rhino horn worth millions

2011-07-22 00:00

A SOUTH African lion breeder and safari operator has emerged as a key supplier of millions of rands worth of rhino horn to a ruthless South-east Asian wildlife trafficking syndicate.

Marnus Steyl (37) allegedly stood to make at least R16 million in just 13 weeks this year by supplying 50 sets of rhino horn to a Laotian company fronting for the syndicate.

Media24 Investigations has established that the Xaysavang Trading Export-Import company, which reportedly operates from a hotel in central Laos, placed the order on April 23. The requisition, which was signed by one of the company’s directors, states bluntly: “1 month can shoot 15 rhino”.

Chumlong Lemtongthai (43), a leading official of the company and a Thai citizen, was arrested two weeks ago at a house in Edenvale and is expected to appear in court today on 23 counts of obtaining rhino hunting permits under false pretences.

Lemtongthai and his associates are alleged to have exploited legislation, which allows “trophy hunting” of rhinos, to obtain vast quantities of horn for the lucrative black markets of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The syndicate is alleged to have used young Thai women, many of them trafficked to South Africa to work in brothels and strip clubs, as “hunters” in sham hunts.

Lemtongthai’s arrest was the culmination of a year-long investigation by the South African Revenue Service (SARS), aided by the Hawks, into Xaysavang’s activities.

Forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan, the man who blew the whistle on corrupt police chief Jackie Selebi, assisted with information from a key insider connected to the alleged racket.

This week Steyl denied any wrongdoing, telling Media24 Investigations this week: “We know this is legal. Everything must be above board, it cannot be any other way. We really do not want to speak to the media. You can write what you like”

Media24 Investigations has obtained copies of affidavits, invoices, letters and dozens of photographs which trace Steyl’s business dealings with Lemtongthai and another figure, Punpitak Chunchom (44).

Chunchom, the syndicate’s alleged “man on the ground” in South Africa, was recently expelled from the country after pleading guilty to the illegal possession of lion bones.

Steyl, who owns or has interests in farms and businesses in the Free State, North West, Eastern Cape and Abu Dhabi, sprang to prominence in 2006 and 2007 when lions escaped from his gamefarm near Winburg in the Free State.

Steyl’s involvement with Xaysavang dates back to at least October last year.

In a letter dated October 30, 2010, Steyl confirmed that “Steyl Game CC helps to organise and conduct hunting for clients of Xaysavang Trading Export-Import Co. Ltd. of Laos” and “assists with the export of predators, wild game, antelope and exotic species like rhino, lion, sable and roan antelope”.

On November 16 Xaysavang was invoiced a total R1,3 million by Steyl Game for 22 kg of rhino horn. A month later an amount of R434 000 was invoiced for “3 rhino”.

Documents also show that the company charged Xaysavang R65 000 for a consignment of lion bones on November 4.

A series of photographs, apparently taken over two days in late March at a game farm in North West, shows Steyl, Chunchom and two young Thai women grinning as they pose next to carcasses of rhinos shot in a “hunt”.

Another image clearly shows a labourer with a “Steyl Game CC” shirt preparing to remove a horn from a dead rhino.

Xaysavang first came to the attention of South African authorities in September 2008, when Chunchom and four other suspects were arrested in Middelburg in Mpumalanga after they were accused of offering an undercover policeman $60 000 for three rhino horns.

The case against Chunchom and two other suspects was later withdrawn.

In July 2009 the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and customs officers seized 260 kg elephant ivory and 18 kilograms of rhino horn at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The shipment was registered to Xaysavang and was destined for Laos.

Officials suspect the shipment originated in South Africa.

Hookers hired as ‘hunters’ in sham hunts

AN international wildlife trafficking syndicate hired Thai prostitutes and strippers from clubs in Pretoria and Midrand to pose as “hunters” in sham rhino trophy hunts, an explosive statement claims.

The women, who have never fired a shot in their lives, would be paid R5 000 each for their participation in a hunt, according to a statement by a former rhino horn trader who has blown the lid on the syndicate.

Many of the women had been trafficked to South Africa where they are working illegally and trying to pay off the debts that bound them to their pimps.

Investigators believe the syndicate, which has previously flown groups of “hunters” to South Africa from Thailand, began recruiting Thai women locally in a bid to cut costs.

Permit regulations allow a hunter to shoot only one rhino a year.

Investigators believe the restriction forced the syndicate to find an ever-changing pool of new “hunters” who could apply for permits and ensure a steady supply of rhino horn trophies.

These “legally” acquired rhino horn trophies, bought at R65 000 a kilogram, would be shipped from South Africa to South-east Asia. There the horns would be sold on the black market, eventually fetching up to $35 000 (R238 000) a kilogram in traditional medicine shops.

In his affidavit the whistleblower identifies a Midrand businessman “who is possibly involved in human trafficking as he supplies females to work in strip-clubs …”

“A lot of the ‘girls’ he imports to work as strippers or prostitutes are Thai nationals,” the statement says.

The insider claims that the syndicate’s “man on the ground” in South Africa, Thai national Punpitak Chunchom aka “Peter”, would be tasked with finding “hunters” once rhino had been transported to a farm where they would be hunted.

Chunchom — who was forced to leave South Africa earlier this month after being arrested and found guilty of the illegal possession of lion bones — would notify the businessman’s Thai wife that he needed hunters.

In a case where three permits were needed, she would “collect” three passports from three “ladies” and make copies of these passports which would be used by the safari operator hosting the “hunters” to apply for permits.

Once the permits were issued, Chunchom would fetch the women and drive them to a farm where the hunt was due to take place.

Trackers would locate the rhino, which would be shot. The “girls” would pose with the kill, holding a rifle.

A nature conservation official would be “on stand-by” to be present for the hunt, measure the horn once it was removed, microchip it and enter the details in a register.

According to the insider he “would also get a kick-back for being so co-operative”, adding that on one occasion “I saw him getting about R400 or R500 in cash”.

“It looked as if it was a normal arrangement.”

Forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan, who “turned” the rhino trader and convinced him to expose the syndicate, said the fines being meted out in many rhino cases are “laughable”.

“The syndicate is flogging this stuff on the black market for R130 million when they got it for R13 million. So in less than a year they’re making a profit of more than R100 million and the National Prosecuting Authority is talking about a fine of a few million rand … all they are doing with fines like that is increasing the cost of shooting the animal. They’re not stopping it.”

The syndicate is flogging this stuff on the black market for R130 million when they got it for R13 million. So in less than a year they’re making a profit of more than R100 million and the National Prosecuting Authority is talking about a fine of a few million rand …

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