Sex workers used to 'hunt' rhino
Julian Rademeyer, Media24 Investigations
Johannesburg - 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 had 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 were working illegally and trying to pay off the debts that bound them to their pimps.
Investigators believe the syndicate, which had 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/kg, 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/kg 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-standby" 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 were "laughable".
"The syndicate is flogging this stuff on the black market for R130m when they got it for R13m. So, in less than a year, they’re making a profit of more than R100m 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."