Tracking the rhino killers

An investigative journalist uncovers the dirty truth of the rhino horn trade
Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade
By Julian Rademeyer
Zebra Press (Random House Struik), 2012
In this investigation into the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn, South African journalist Julian Rademeyer uncovers a tale of underground crime syndicates and collusion with everyone from the police to politicians. Jeremy Smith interviewed him in Johannesburg for chinadialogue.
Jeremy Smith: Why has the trade grown so significantly in Vietnam compared to China? It’s estimated that two-thirds of the rhino horn market is in Vietnam, with the remaining third based in China.
Julian Rademeyer: Today Vietnam’s economy is growing spectacularly and there’s an increasingly wealthy middle class. But it wasn’t until 2003 when you could document increasing interest from the country – that was the year the first five hunters came to South Africa to shoot on these "pseudo-trophy" hunts [hunts that pretend to be legal as the hunters pay for a license to shoot a rhino for a trophy, but the horn ends up being sold].
JS: Who are the consumers?
JR: Most of the consumers are the moneyed elite. It’s a complicated issue – a lot of horn being sold in Hanoi is fake, which makes you ask: are rich people keeping the real stuff for themselves to use, or even speculating by hoarding it while the price rises? Also, recently the chairman of Vietnam’s second largest bank reported the theft of two rhino horns from his house. What is interesting here is that no one investigated why he had an 800-kilogram stuffed rhino in his house. Yet the documents show it was shot, exported and given to him as a gift. This is illegal, because the hunter has to keep the horn for themselves. You can’t give it away. 
JS: Should we legalise the trade?
JR: There are lobby groups in South Africa pushing for legalisation, including a number of rhino farmers and economists. But it certainly isn’t a short-term solution. At the moment the only people involved in the trade are criminals, so that raises concerns about how you would create a legal market. There’s a lot of talk of setting up a central selling organisation akin to what has happened in the diamond trade in efforts to stop blood diamonds. But then that hasn’t has a lot of success either.
JS: Why isn’t law enforcement working?
JR: Shooting poachers isn’t going to solve the problem. These people are cannon fodder. I’ve been to villages along the edge of the Kruger Park from where lots of the poachers have been recruited. And despite lots of them being killed, there are still many more lining up on the street to take their place. We have to look at how we make this a less attractive option, which means how do you make the Kruger Park – currently a playground for wealthy South Africans and tourists – more inclusive of the communities that live on its borders?
These people are offered a stark choice – crossing the border illegally from Mozambique to work illegally in Johannesburg, or walking into the park, shooting a rhino and making more in a day than they would in a year. We should look to Namibia (and Kenya and Botswana to a lesser degree) which has had great success with community-oriented conservation efforts. It’s going to be difficult, but we need to try to improve these communities’ lot – through the park looking at what can put back into these communities through ecotourism, education, providing jobs etc.
JS: China has a huge investment in Africa. Is there some leverage there?
JR: South Africa’s international relations department is fairly weak on foreign policy. They are incredibly reluctant to put any pressure on China over anything. There’s a long history between the ANC and China. Senior members of the ANC travel frequently to China on state-sponsored junkets to attend political schools. Basically these are state-sponsored shopping trips.
JS: CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meets again on 3 March. Do you hold much hope?
JR: CITES is hugely problematic. It can be effective when it’s dealing with a well-controlled legal trade. But the rhino trade is almost completely underground. They aren’t a policing agency so there is very little they can do about it. I’ve done other investigations into the trade in apes in West Africa. And it’s very clear there that CITES is toothless. A number of CITES officials are on the take from traffickers, and being paid off to issue permits. One official we met just had permits lying around waiting to be taken.
JS: Rhinoceros is the cause célèbre of the moment. What’s next?
JR: We need to talk a lot more about ivory. The problem is that resources in South Africa are being channeled into trying to stop the rhino trade, so if you are someone involved in any other form of trafficking, it’s pretty much open season. In West Africa, for example, there’s a very disturbing trade in monkeys – and it is not attracting the same sort of focus. Yet it’s the same companies, such as Xaysavang Trading, who are connected with the trade in everything from apes, to pangolins to reptiles.
Killing for Profit can be bought through the book’s website.