Senior research fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime Julian Rademeyer is determined to keep fighting rhino poaching.  Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Senior research fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime Julian Rademeyer is determined to keep fighting rhino poaching. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

JULIAN Rademeyer is one of the most authoritative voices on the seemingly irresolvable problem of the illegal trade in rhino horn. But the former Sunday Times journalist, now working as a senior research fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, says he became involved in this area of wildlife reporting "by chance".

In 2010, as a member of Media24’s investigative unit, Rademeyer was looking into police corruption, working on a story that involved a South African farmer arrested in Zimbabwe for selling rifles to wildlife poachers.

"The weapons had been stolen in a farm attack. The story led to other stories," he says, adding that it was symptomatic of the rhino poaching issue, in that it was complex and far-reaching, involving not only individual criminals but also organised crime and state and police corruption and inefficiency.

"What attracted me to this issue is that rhino horn has no real intrinsic value, yet it fetches higher prices than gold and platinum.

"The lengths criminals will go to to get their hands on it are extraordinary," says the award-winning journalist and author of Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade.

Rademeyer recently presented an influential two-part report on the issue in Geneva, Switzerland. He says the reports took several months to research and write.

Part 1, called Tipping Point: Transnational Organised Crime and the "War" on Poaching, draws on "hundreds of pages of documents and extensive interviews with officials in government, conservation and law enforcement agencies in Southern Africa, Europe, and Asia.

"This report ... examines law enforcement responses to international rhino horn trafficking syndicates and investigates legal loopholes, institutional lapses, and a confluence of licit and illicit activities that have allowed the trade to fester," Rademeyer writes in the introduction.

It presents an overview of law enforcement responses in SA since the start of the poaching crisis in the mid-2000s. The country is home to 70% of the world’s last remaining rhinos. The Kruger National Park is the eye of the storm, accounting for about 60% of poaching incidents over the past seven years.

"It is there that a complex ‘war on poaching’ is being waged, one that has led to the deaths of at least 200 suspected poachers, several soldiers, two field rangers, and a policeman," writes Rademeyer.

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HE says the term "war" is problematic because it creates the impression that park rangers are soldiers, "but they can’t just start shooting. It is an unequal conflict."

And it is far bigger than just a conservation issue, he adds: it is a policing and security issue.

The perception is slowly changing, he says, but the Department of Environmental Affairs, largely tasked with fighting the illegal trade, receives a budget of only R5.9bn — less than 1% of the national budget. The defence and public safety budget is R172bn.

The second section of the report, Beyond Borders: Crime, Conservation and Criminal Networks in the Illicit Rhino Horn Trade, "examines the confluence of licit and illicit activities in the trade in rhino horns and sheds new light on investigations in Europe into so-called pseudo-hunting cases, and the links between syndicates smuggling rhino horn in the Czech Republic and other countries to crimes that include the trade in counterfeit goods and drug smuggling."

"It also presents evidence of the involvement of Vietnamese pseudo hunters and rhino horn smugglers on a tiger and rhino farm in SA’s North West province, and their involvement in attempting to secure 100 rhinos for a new safari park established in Vietnam by one of the country’s largest companies," Rademeyer writes.

Rademeyer works long hours and spends a lot of time on the road. He feels especially unsafe in Mozambique, where there is a resistance to law enforcement.

"When a poacher’s body is sent back home to Mozambique he is given a hero’s burial," he says.

Some villagers who feel excluded from the Mozambican economy question why animals should be valued and protected, he says, adding that without more community involvement in economic activity around national parks, the poaching "war" will never be won.

Though it is considered a "high priority" in terms of South African law enforcement, rhino poaching is overshadowed by many other socioeconomic concerns, such as housing, education, and job creation.

"It is not an issue that will win an election," he says.

In Killing for Profit, he describes how a slight young woman, dressed in inappropriately stylish clothes, came to be holding a large-calibre rifle on a South African farm, training it on a rhino lying peacefully under a tree. "It was quite clear she was not a hunter and had never held a rifle before."

She was a Vietnamese prostitute who had been drafted to obtain a permit to hunt a rhino from the Department of Environmental Affairs — a pseudo-hunter. Because they could sell the horn at insane prices, the Vietnamese operators pushed up the price of hunting a rhino to as high as R300,000.

Rademeyer says the department has mostly clamped down on pseudo-hunting and nationals from Vietnam and the Czech Republic — also involved in the pseudo-trade and in supplying large-calibre rifles — are banned from receiving permits. "But Chinese and Ukrainian nationals have stepped into their shoes."

Law enforcement will never win unless it becomes as efficient as the crime syndicates, he says.

Western democracies could also do more to help in the fight. "I get frustrated at the lack of global co-operation," Rademeyer says. "In SA, we are left on our own to cope with the problem."

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PROGRAMMES such as Operation Crash in the US — a criminal investigation led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that is addressing all aspects of US involvement in the black market rhino horn trade — are making a difference though.

The challenge is to disrupt the entire supply chain, which generally runs through Mozambique, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, Laos, Vietnam and China.

"At every step, enforcement gets weaker; there are more people involved. How can you meaningfully have an impact on the length of that chain?" Rademeyer asks.

Education programmes in the East are making a difference.

READ THIS: Zimbabwe wildlife authority suspends DG as stored rhino horn goes missing

Some of the adverts were condescending — focusing on superstition, for example — but recent ones, such as the "Strength of Chi" campaign in Vietnam, emphasises that a true leader creates his own good fortune and does not need to use rhino horn.

Although Vietnam has banned the trade, its police are loath to follow up cases, Rademeyer says, illustrating that political will without enforcement is useless.

He says targeting small-fry poachers is ineffective.

"We need to disrupt the transnational criminal networks to reach the kingpins, who right now are untouchable."

Though he is often tempted to think of it as an "unwinnable war", Rademeyer says: "I take hope from the passionate, remarkable people I meet who are involved in this work.

"They don’t earn big salaries, and you won’t hear their names, but they are doing their bit behind the scenes," he says.