Wildlife trafficking trail leads to SA safari man

2011-07-21 23:04

Johannesburg - 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 southeast Asian wildlife trafficking syndicate.

Marnus Steyl, 37, allegedly stood to make at least R16m 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 senior Xaysavang director and a Thai citizen was arrested two weeks ago at a house in Edenvale and is expected to appear in court on Friday on 23 counts of obtaining rhino hunting permits under false pretences.

Sham hunts

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, also provided investigators with information from a key insider connected to the alleged racket.

Above board

This week Steyl denied any wrongdoing, telling Media24 Investigations: "We know our things are in order. Everything is above board; it can’t be any other way."

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 Province, the Eastern Cape and Abu Dhabi,  sprang to prominence in 2006 and 2007 when lions escaped from his game farm near Winburg in the Free State.

Lion bones

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 R1.3m by Steyl Game for 22kg 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 which appear to have been taken over two days in late March at a game farm in North West province, show 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 as Chunchom looks on.

Undercover cop


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 allegedly offered 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 260kg of elephant ivory and 18kg of rhino horn at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

The shipment was registered to Xaysavang and was destined for Laos. Officials suspected the shipment originated in South Africa.

The company also reportedly owns a 20ha farm in Laos and breeds long-tailed macaques for export to China as laboratory animals.

- investigations@media24.com

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