Global rhino syndicate bust
Sixteen people in the Czech Republic have been charged with being part of an international trafficking syndicate that allegedly moved rhino horn from South Africa to Vietnam.
Stepánka Zenklová, spokesman for the Prague municipal attorney's office, said the 16 were the alleged masterminds of the operation and Czech hunters whose travel expenses to South Africa were paid by their recruiters.
According to an investigation dossier seen by The Times, Czech police and customs officers have allegedly linked the syndicate to controversial South African hunting outfitter Dawie Groenewald and the network of wildlife operators dubbed the "Musina mafia".
Investigators believe that the Czechs shot rhino on Groenewald's Limpopo farm, Prachtig, and signed the rights to the "trophies" over to the syndicate.
Czech investigators believe massive corruption in South Africa's conservation bureaucracy allowed the scam to continue through most of 2011.
"These were not rhino trophy-hunting trips for the sport. They were cold-blooded executions," an investigator told The Times.
"They wanted to sell the horns on the black market in Vietnam, where their price far exceeds the costs of rhino hunting."
Authorities say the horns were shipped as unmounted trophies with Groenewald's "Out of Africa" tags attached. Stamped with the South African Cites export approval mark, the horns were packed into wooden shipping crates.
Czech officials became suspicious when a set of freight forwarding papers for a shipment of rhino horn indicated Vietnam as the final destination. Further alarms were set off by the low insurance valuation of $50 a horn.
Groenewald has not been charged. Asked for comment yesterday, he said: "I don't know anything about it. I don't know about horn seizures or arrests.
"How should I know they are trafficking horns?"
Groenewald and several others were arrested in September 2010 after a police raid led to the discovery of more than 20 rhino carcasses buried on his farm.
Groenewald, his wife, Sariette, two wildlife vets, a vet's wife, four hunters and a worker were charged with 1872 counts, including the illegal killing of rhino, money-laundering, fraud, trading in rhino horn and illegal possession of weapons.
The Pretoria High Court in July postponed their trial until August4 next year.
In October, Groenewald, and his brother, Janneman, were indicted by the US Department of Justice on charges of trafficking rhino horn, international money-laundering, and conspiring to sell rhino hunts fraudulently to American hunters.
The two men were also charged under the Lacey Act, the oldest and foremost environmental protection statute in the US.