An eight-year-old rhino walks after being inserted with a GPS device to keep track of its movements. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko

The alarm bells rang way back in 2003, when the first batch of bogus Eastern “trophy hunters” arrived in SA, home to the largest remaining rhino population in the world.

Once the beasts were shot, SA authorised the export of at least nine rhino trophy horns to Vietnam, under the authority of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) permits.

A year later, three more trophies were exported to Vietnam and by 2009 the number of trophies had grown to hundreds – yet Vietnamese authorities could only account for the official arrival of 38 horns.

According to a report by rhino specialists Tom Milliken and Richard Emslie, at least 87 percent of the South African trophies were going astray, while Cites permits were also being recycled to launder other illegal horn exports.

“Investigations in South Africa have revealed disturbing evidence of organised crime, including the frequent involvement of a small number of Vietnamese nationals in rhino hunting, often on the same game ranches repeatedly; numerous cases whereby Vietnamese “trophy hunters” paid above market price for rhino hunts, but then had to be instructed how to shoot,” Milliken and Emslie warned in an official report to Cites officials in 2009.

They also reported the alleged involvement of Vietnam embassy staff and vehicles in the illegal movement of horns through SA, while one official invoked diplomatic immunity to evade arrest.

The report also drew attention to involvement of several Thai, Chinese and Cambodian nationals in the illegal trade and warned that there were no systems in place within Vietnam to prevent sport trophies being ground down into powder for Eastern traditional medicine.

Yet, almost a decade after the first bogus hunters began to exploit the legal loopholes in the Cites hunting permit system, scores of Eastern “hunters” are still cashing in – despite several attempts by SA authorities to clean up the mess.

At a time when illegal poaching has reached crisis levels, official permit records reveal that legal Eastern hunters are still making merry in some provinces.

In North West province alone, more than 90 percent of the more than 180 legally sanctioned hunts since 2009 appear to have been awarded to Eastern nationals.

While only 21 rhino hunting permits were issued in KwaZulu-Natal in 2009, almost 50 percent of these were issued to Vietnamese nationals.

The official lists came to light recently after DA environment spokesman Gareth Morgan asked colleagues to probe the matter by posing official questions in all nine provincial legislatures – as rhino permits are still issued by individual provinces rather than the national government.

So far, only North West and KZN have released the data.

The North West data shows that more than 100 hunting permits were issued during the 2010-2011 financial year – equal to about one third of the illegal poaching deaths in the same period throughout the country.

Morgan feels there is little doubt that the majority of these horns end up being crushed into powder for traditional medicine.

While it might be difficult to ban such hunters simply on the basis of their nationality, Morgan says the abuse of the permit system in some provinces has reached the point where the national government has to step in.

Earlier this month, Environment Minister Edna Molewa resisted calls to impose a blanket national moratorium on rhino hunting, but said she reserved the right to take tough action in selected provinces.

She also said her department would “pursue a halt to the issuance of hunting permits to hunters coming from countries that do not have appropriate legislation to monitor whether the trophy is used for the purpose as reflected on the permits”.

However, cleaning up the mess could pose several legal, administrative and constitutional challenges.

From a legal perspective, how could conservation authorities refuse to issue hunting permits to Eastern nationals simply because of their nationality – even though they have legitimate fears that many of these hunts are simply used to launder rhino horns into the black market (where processed rhino horn can fetch as much as $30 000 (R241 355) a kilogram)?

Yet if conservation authorities were to refuse permits to Vietnamese and other Eastern nationals, how could they defend issuing permits to wealthy American or European sport-hunters?

The other difficulty is the constitution, which states that responsibility for nature conservation is shared between national and provincial governments.

If the national government wanted to take over control of all rhino hunting permits from provinces, this could require amendments to the constitution.

Pietermaritzburg-based Emslie acknowledged that the North West permit system had been flagged as a “problem”, yet KZN appeared to have had more success in cleaning up the bogus hunting problem.

Emslie, the scientific officer for the African Rhino Specialist Group of the IUCN international nature conservation union, said Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife had tackled the issue by ensuring that its officers monitored all hunts personally to establish the bona fides of the “hunters”.

He noted that in some provinces, criminal syndicates had employed prostitutes to pose as hunters as a means of getting around legal restrictions which limited rhino hunting to one trophy a person, per year.

In KZN, he said, Ezemvelo officials actively monitored whether permit-holders were able to shoot straight and posed other questions to weed out bogus hunters.

“I don’t think it is just by chance that a lot of the bogus hunts have taken place in North West, rather than KZN, where Ezemvelo has been giving more attention to this issue.”

Emslie said he did not know exactly how many hunting permits were being issued by provinces, and said he supported a new nationally based permit system with much tighter controls.

Faan Coetzee, an independent conservationist and former head of the Endangered Wildlife Trust rhino security project, also believes it is crucial to limit the total number of legal rhino hunts at a national level.

“My feeling is that the current level of hunting cannot be sustained and I also question whether the current estimate of 20 000 rhinos in South Africa is accurate. I believe it is actually much lower.

“We also know that these bogus hunts by Asian nationals are fuelling the fire – but how can you prove that the horns that are taken away are not trophies? We know what is happening – but we can’t really act on it.”

A former conservation official with close connections to the hunting industry says he is worried that Ezemvelo and other provincial and state agencies are indirectly feeding the problem by supplying surplus rhinos to the hunting industry through annual game auctions.

“Most of the animals which get hunted are bought from Ezemvelo and other agencies. The conservation authorities know where their animals end up, but how can they stop unscrupulous SA game ranchers buying these animals at public auctions?” 8P12