I have been away on safari over the last few weeks and come back to mixed news on the rhino poaching crisis. On the plus side is the huge bust by the police and other agencies of the Groenewalds and their accomplices. It was only going to be a matter of time before the authorities made the breakthrough and for this they need to be congratulated. There will no doubt be more arrests to follow and one hopes this is the next big step in the unravelling of the organized crime syndicates targeting South Africa’s wildlife.
As expected, the eleven arrested come from the hunting, game ranching and veterinary professions and all have extensive experience in these industries. Given the state of South Africa’s wildlife industry, I am surprised that so many are surprised that ranchers, vets and hunters are so involved. Who else has the knowledge, information and means at their disposal to run such effective wildlife crime syndicates? And the laws and attitudes that prevail are a perfect template for this sort of abuse.
Groenewald particularly is known to the world of hunting and conservation: his company, the notorious Out Of Africa Adventurous Safaris, has been banished from Zimbabwe for various illegal and unethical practices and has also been expelled from local hunting associations. Not as well known is the still unsettled case in Botswana against Ethnic Conservation Services, a South African registered company that is a front for Groenewald and Out of Africa. This company sub-leased NG49, a hunting concession alongside the Makgadikgadi Pans and then, according to community leaders and court papers, after conducting numerous hunts, it reneged on paying over US$200 000 of community concession fees and trophy fees to the Xhauxhwatubi Development Trust. More recently, Groenewald has spent time in a US jail for trying to illegally import a leopard trophy.
Not surprisingly though, the company continues to run a website and they still advertise hunting safaris into Botswana and Tanzania. With the shameful charge sheet they have accumulated, the respective authorities from these two countries should, at the very least, look to banish any representative of the company until such time that the courts can prove otherwise. They would also do well to take a look at who Out of Africa partners with in Botswana and Tanzania – and then ask some serious questions of them: it may very well lead to the discovery of further transgressions.
The case has been postponed to April 2011 when all eleven suspects will face fraud, corruption and various other charges of contravening the environmental and biodiversity acts. In the meantime, a string of high-profile lawyers and a war-chest of funds are likely to be mobilized.
And while talking of throwing money around, this leads to the not-so-good news and the case of another group of hunters on charges of racketeering and money laundering related to allegations of running a rhino poaching syndicate. The Fletcher and Saaiman case that many readers are now familiar with was temporarily removed from the court roll on Friday. This has come about after the States key witnesses, the two van Deventer brothers that I interviewed in Kroonstad prison, have suddenly changed their minds about testifying. One refuses to give evidence for the state and the other wants witness protection before he considers testifying.
I spent a full morning questioning these two and they were absolutely adamant about their story, so why the sudden turnaround? There is no doubt as to who benefits from this development and as a result, further charges, that of intimidation and defeating the ends of justice could very well be added to the charge sheet when the state re-opens the case.
And this development begs the question: are we seeing the beginning of Mafia-styled payoffs and/or threats in these rhino poaching cases where witnesses are placed under severe pressure not to testify?