By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
31 December 2012
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa (The New York Times) — They definitely did not look like ordinary big-game hunters, the stream of slender young Thai women who showed up on the veld wearing tight bluejeans and sneakers.
But the rhinoceros carcasses kept piling up around them, and it was only after dozens of these hulking, relatively rare animals were dead and their precious horns sawed off that an extravagant scheme came to light.
The Thai women, it ends up, were not hunters at all. Many never even squeezed off a shot. Instead, they were prostitutes hired by a criminal syndicate based 6,000 miles away in Laos to exploit loopholes in big-game hunting rules and get its hands on as many rhino horns as possible — horns that are now worth more than gold.
“These girls had no idea what they were doing,” said Paul O’Sullivan, a private investigator in Johannesburg who helped crack the case. “They thought they were going on safari.”
The rhino horn rush has gotten so out of control that it has exploded into a worldwide criminal enterprise, drawing in a surreal cast of characters — not just Thai prostitutes, but also Irish gangsters, Vietnamese diplomats, Chinese scientists, veterinarians, copter pilots, antiques dealers and recently an American rodeo star looking for a quick buck who used Facebook to find some horns.
Driven by a common belief in Asia that ground-up rhino horns can cure cancer and other ills, the trade has also been embraced by criminal syndicates that normally traffic drugs and guns, but have branched into the underground animal parts business because it is seen as “low risk, high profit,” American officials say.
“Get caught smuggling a kilo of cocaine, you will receive a very significant prison sentence,” said Ed Grace, a deputy chief with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. But with a kilogram of rhino horn, he added, “you may only get a fine.” […]
The number of rhinos poached in South Africa has soared in the past five years, from 13 killed in 2007 to more than 630 in 2012. The prehistoric, battleship-gray animals are often found on their knees, bleeding to death from a gaping stump on their face. […]
In the past 50 years, the overall rhino population has plummeted by more than 90 percent, despite an international ban on the trade in rhino parts since 1977. [more]