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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Heroes and Villains in the War on Rhinos

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 11, 2011

Park rangers are the unsung heroes in the war on wildlife–underpaid, overworked, and routinely at risk to their lives, especially in areas where poachers do their dark work.  When I was in South Africa early this year,  a section ranger (who asks to be unnamed) at  Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal, told me about arresting one of the notorious Van Deventer brothers in 2006.   “I was standing in front of the vehicle with a semi-automatic weapon saying, ‘Get out of the car!'” she said.  “And he was reaching for something under the seat.  The guy I was with reached in and snatched him out of the car.  It turned out there was a .38 snub-nosed under the seat that he was trying to reach.”

Later, Van Deventer told police that he’d already been to prison once and was determined never to go back.   It’s not clear if he was intending kill the ranger or himself.  In any case, one brother ended up with a five-year jail sentence, and the other got 10.  “These two brothers were responsible for the deaths of 25 rhinos,” said the ranger.

Now they are speaking out about their crimes, probably in a bid for early parole.  Here’s the report from investigative journalist Ian Michler:

The poachers
We never liked doing what we did and telling our story will help the public be aware of how to catch other poachers,’ says Rhino One, the name the older brother goes by in prison. ‘We are relieved it’s over because we were always stressed. I lost perspective on life,’ added Rhino Two, his younger brother. Involved from the very beginning, Rhino Two is serving a 10-year sentence, with two years suspended after admitting that he continued to poach after his first arrest in May 2006. The older brother was given five years, with two-and-a-half years suspended for his role as an accomplice towards the end of the killing spree.

Crime syndicates
Criminal activity that involves trade in ill-gotten goods and services of high value is usually carried out through syndicates. In essence, these operate as loose or informal associations, founded on the basis that members with the ability to distribute cash carry the most power and influence. Ostensibly the smart guys, they get others lower in the network to do the dirty work and take the greater risks. And finding people who are willing to take those risks in return for immediate payment is never a problem.

High rewards – Heavy punishments
It is common knowledge that dealing in rhino horn involves big money, but it also comes with the threat of harsh jail sentences and heavy fines. These range in severity from a minimum of five years imprisonment or a R50 000 (US$6 700) fine in North West province to 15 years or a R250 000 (US$34 000) fine in Limpopo. With this type of risk-reward profile, rhino poaching and the smuggling of horns are perfectly suited to syndicates. In this particular case, the brothers who are sitting in jail were the bottom feeders, and they got involved because they needed the money, sometimes desperately.

According to them, they were taking instructions, and the cash, from middlemen higher up the network. Amongst those arrested and charged in relation to this case are a number of well-known members of the South African hunting community, the youngest brother of the two convicted brothers, a prominent captive-predator breeder from the Free State and a private investigator. And then there is the ‘mule’, a customary and crucial player in the work of syndicates. Mules are used, often unwittingly, to carry out risky drop-off assignments. The handler is often nowhere near the vicinity of the assignment and step-by-step instructions will be passed on via cellphone. For example, a mule may be instructed to go to a park or restaurant, pick up a bag lying in the toilets and then catch a flight to a particular city. Upon arrival, they will then be told to book into a certain hotel and leave the bag in a specific place before checking out at a given time.

The bag, containing the rhino horn, will then be picked up by someone else, and so the trail continues. In one instance, an unemployed person from Port Elizabeth was arrested for doing the donkey work between those charged and the end users, thought to be a group of wealthy Vietnamese, who took delivery of the horn outside South Africa.

19 rhinos killed – 8 in Kruger National Park
Between December 2005 and August 2006, when the brothers were caught at the gates of KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, they claim to have shot 19 white rhinos. Eighteen died within close proximity to where they were shot and one escaped wounded. Of the total, 16 were adults and three were calves, killed because they kept milling around their dead mothers. Eight of the rhinos were shot in the southern reaches of the Kruger National Park, two in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi and the rest on private game farms owned by people known to the syndicate members.

Recruited by hunting community
Rhino Two believes that he was recruited by members of the hunting community to do the shooting because of his marksmanship and tracking skills. Using a variety of weapons, mostly illegal loans from gun shops and fellow hunters, he pulled the trigger on every rhino killed. His choice of weapon for the first few operations was acompound bow, but he soon found that its benefit of silence was outweighed by the need to get extremely close, and he switched to a light rifle, a seven-millimetre Mauser, fitted with a silencer. For the last few operations, a heavier calibre 30-06 was used, simply because it was made available to him.

Broad daylight – Modus operandi
Every animal was shot within just 100 metres of a road, some as close as 15 metres, and all during broad daylight. In the Kruger Park, busy roads were chosen to avoid arousing suspicion. During two operations that took place on private land, the brothers claim that a light aircraft was used to spot the rhino from the air before they went in on foot. For Rhino One and Rhino Two, locating animals and pulling the trigger was the easiest part of the operation. Removing the horn and escaping the scene undetected was much harder.

The chances of being discovered or having to abort a mission multiplied substantially if they dropped an animal, but had to spend an anxious night in a camp or lodge, usually under a false name, waiting to return and cut out the horn the following morning. In the beginning, Rhino Two used a large panga to remove the horn, but soon switched to a smaller and sharper butcher’s knife. With the panga, it took 20 minutes of grunt work to dislodge the horns, but by the end he was completing the process in less than a minute, using the same technique employed to cut abalone from its shell. In most instances, once the horns were removed, they had enough time to cover the rhino’s body with brush and branches.

Rhino horns – $2000 per kilo
The horns, in a state referred to as ‘wet’, were simply placed in a bag and stored under the seat of the getaway vehicle. According to the two brothers, they cut out at least 85 kilograms of horn during 11 months of poaching. In the underworld, horn for trade is often referred to as harde hout (Afrikaans for ‘hard wood’) and the prices they received varied between R12 000 and R15 000 (US$1 600 to US$2 000) per kilogram. In general, these prices seem to be above the going rate paid at this level, but the brothers believe this happened because there were fewer ranks in the syndicate and, unusually, most of the members, except the mule and the Vietnamese buyers, knew one an- other. On one occasion, desperate for money, they accepted R6 750 (US$900) per kilogram. As horns were passed up the syndicate ladder, however, the price increased with each transaction. According to the brothers, members just two levels up from them were receiving about R19 000 (US$2 500) per kilogram.

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