National Geographic: U.S. Indictment Accuses South African Brothers of Trafficking Rhino Horns

Safari outfitters allegedly duped hunters into paying extra to illegally shoot rhinos.


Laurel Neme

for National Geographic

Published October 23, 2014

U.S. authorities today announced the indictment of the alleged kingpin of a South African rhino poaching and trafficking syndicate, Dawie Groenewald, and his brother, Janneman, and their company Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris on multiple charges, including conspiracy, money laundering, and wildlife crime.

The Groenewald brothers own and operate Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris, an outfitter that organizes and conducts trips in private hunting areas in Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, including at their 10,600-acre (4,300-hectare) game farm, Prachtig, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) south of the town of Musina, in South Africa's Limpopo Province.

U.S. authorities will be seeking to extradite the brothers from South Africa.

According to the 18-count indictment, between 2005 and 2010 the Groenewald brothers duped nine American hunters at their ranch into illegally shooting rhinos.

The brothers would then cut off the horns and sell them on the black market in Asia.

The Groenewalds and their safari company solicited American hunters at large regional sportsmen's shows, including Safari Club International conventions.

They also donated hunts to local chapters of Safari Club International in Kansas City, Missouri, and a National Rifle Association convention in Louisville, Kentucky.

They later offered hunters add-ons, such as the chance to shoot rhinos for additional fees (typically around $10,000). The outfitters said those rhinos were "problem" animals that were "dangerous" and "aggressive" and could be hunted legally. (Related: "Q&A: Can Airlifting Rhinos Out of South Africa Save the Species?")

The Groenewalds said that although the hunters couldn't export a rhino's horn as a trophy, they could measure it and take photographs and videos of the hunt and of themselves posed with the dead animal, which could then be submitted to record books.

The Groenewalds and Out of Africa also offered Americans the chance to conduct "green" hunts, when the hunter would shoot a rhinoceros with a tranquilizer gun and then pose for photographs with the sedated animal.

The Groenewalds, however, never obtained the necessary permits, and they also concealed the fact that the hunts would be in violation of South African law.

After photos were taken, the Groenewalds or their staff would cut off the horns with chainsaws or knives and sell the horns in Asia.

In essence, they earned profit twice: once for the sale of the hunt and again when they trafficked the horns.


Long Reach of U.S. Law

"These defendants tricked, lied, and defrauded American citizens in order to profit from these illegal rhinoceros hunts," stated George Beck, Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama.

"Not only did they break South African laws, but they laundered their ill-gotten gains through our banks here in Alabama. We will not allow United States citizens to be used as a tool to destroy a species that is virtually harmless to people or other animals."

The Groenewalds and Out of Africa are being charged under several U.S. laws, including the Lacey Act. The Lacey Act is a powerful legal tool that makes it a crime to knowingly sell in interstate and foreign commerce wildlife that was taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of foreign law. In this case, it refers to selling animal hunts that violated South African law. (Related: "For Rangers on the Front Lines of Anti-Poaching Wars, Daily Trauma.")

"This case is intended to send a message to outfitters and professional hunters: The long reach of U.S. law will catch up to you if you involve our country and our hunters in criminal enterprises abroad," says Jean Williams, Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "If you sell your illegal hunts here, you are subject to prosecution here, regardless of where the hunt takes place.

"This case is also a cautionary tale for American hunters. As a consumer market, we have a special obligation to make sure that we are following the rules designed to protect both U.S. and foreign wildlife."

Cooperation From South Africa

During the investigation into this illegal hunting scheme, U.S. authorities received substantial cooperation from South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority and the specialized endangered species unit within the organized crime unit of the South African Police Service, known as the Hawks.

"The fact that defendants used American hunters to execute this scheme is appalling—but not as appalling as the brutal tactics they employed to kill 11 critically endangered wild rhinos," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

"South Africa has worked extraordinarily hard to protect its wild rhino population, using trophy hunts as a key management tool. The illegal hunts perpetrated by these criminals undermine that work and the reputation of responsible hunters everywhere."

Groenewald Charged in South Africa

Dawie Groenewald is the head of a rhino poaching and trafficking syndicate known in South Africa as the "Groenewald Gang" or "Musina Mafia." He was arrested in 2010 along with ten others, including his wife, veterinarians, and professional hunters. (Neither Janneman Groenewald nor Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris was included.)

The South African indictment is 637 pages long and charges the group with 1,872 counts of illegal hunting, dealing in rhino horns, racketeering, money laundering, and fraud. (Related: "1,000+ Rhinos Poached in 2013: Highest in Modern History.")

According to the book Killing for Profit, by Julien Rademeyer, Dawie Groenewald alone faces 1,736 counts that stem from his allegedly having illegally sold at least 384 rhino horns over a four-year period, having killed more than 39 of his own rhinos for their horns, and illegally dehorning more than 80 others.

That case has dragged on for almost four years, with trials postponed several times. The most recent, set for July 2014, was postponed to August 4, 2015, to allow conclusion of a civil suit regarding the constitutionality of current regulations for endangered and protected species.

The Groenewald group allegedly made about $6.8 million from the illegal sale of rhino horn.

According to the affidavit submitted by South Africa Police Service Colonel Johan Jooste, Dawie Groenewald managed the syndicate from 2006 to September 2010 while the others helped in pseudo-hunts, translocating and dehorning rhinos, making false applications for permits, and selling the horn. (Related: "Why African Rhinos Are Facing a Crisis.")

Groenewald Interviewed

In an interview detailed in Killing for Profit, Dawie Groenewald expressed confidence that he will beat the South African case.

"They [the South African prosecutors] will eventually come and say there has been a mistake on a permit here, or something wrong there, let's sort it all out. Let's make arrangements for a fine.

"I am not a poacher," he told Rademeyer. "That word makes me sick. It is not necessary for me to poach a rhino.

"I don't enjoy killing rhinos," he continued. "But I'm killing them because of the system. We are forced to shoot them because that is the only way the trophies can be sold and exported. You have to kill the animal to sell its horns."

He went on to tell Rademeyer that he makes a lot of money from hunting, saying, "For me, to do these hunts is very good money. It is really good money."

Operation Crash

The U.S. indictment is part of Operation Crash, an ongoing multiagency effort to detect, deter, and prosecute those engaged in the illegal killing of rhinos and the trafficking of their horns. The operation is led by the Special Investigations Unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Operation Crash takes its name from the term "crash," which describes a herd of rhinos.

So far, there have been 26 arrests and 18 convictions, with prison terms as long as 70 months. The indictments against the Groenewalds and their company are the first of Operation Crash that involve the direct killing of wild rhinos.

Those convicted include Zhifei Li, the "boss" of three antique dealers who obtained and smuggled rhino horn out of the U.S. into China on his behalf; Qiang "Jeffrey" Wang, who smuggled Asian artifacts, including "libation cups" made from rhinoceros horn and ivory; and Michael Slattery, Jr., an Irish national who illegally trafficked rhino horn throughout the United States, and is alleged to belong to an organized criminal group engaged in rhino horn trafficking.

As of October 14, 868 rhinos had been poached this year in South Africa alone.

Yet the numbers are really far worse. Cases like the ones against Dawie and Janneman Groenewald and Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris are not included in those figures.

"What we're seeing here is added to those awful statistics," Williams noted. "It's even larger than what's documented."

In sentencing Zhifei Li in New Jersey, U.S. District Judge Esther Salas reflected on the seriousness of rhino horn trafficking charges.

"The reality is there is a need to send a message to society, to those that deal in this market, this black market, that if you are apprehended, whether you are smuggling old rhinoceros horns, horns for black rhinoceros, or some white tusks from elephants, if you are doing this, and you are internationally exporting these materials, you are going to face severe and swift punishment."

View this article on National Geographic.