(File photo) Seized rhino horns are shown with an alleged Vietnamese smuggler left, with a Thai customs official at a news conference in Bangkok. Poaching impacts heavily on wildlife.

Durban - Criminal syndicates have been roping in bogus sport-hunters from the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia to step around South Africa’s ban on Vietnamese “pseudo-hunters” shooting rhinos and smuggling their horns to the East.

Last year, in an attempt to plug a legal loophole exploited by Vietnamese organised crime syndicates, Environment Minister Edna Molewa announced that the government would refuse to issue any more rhino-hunting permits to Vietnamese citizens.

The move came after widespread abuse of hunting permits to circumvent the rhino horn trading ban under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Since 2003 Vietnamese citizens have hunted more than 400 rhinos legally in South Africa, sparking a major outcry from several conservation groups.

This has pressured the government to stop a situation whereby people with no prior hunting experience were being recruited by organised crime groups to obtain rhino horn for the black market under the pretext of legitimate sport-hunting permits.

Now it has emerged that the crime syndicates changed their strategy rapidly, even before the ban on Vietnamese hunters took effect in South Africa in April last year.

A new report to be presented to the Cites meeting in Bangkok on March 3 has suggested that Vietnamese middle-men hired sport hunters from Poland and the Czech Republic to visit South Africa as “proxy pseudo-hunters”.

An intelligence report from the Czech Environmental Inspectorate to the Cites rhino working group in September last year warned that several Czech hunters (mainly from one area in northern Bohemia) were being recruited by Vietnamese agents living in the Czech Republic.

“These recruited ‘hunters’ are not members of any Czech hunting associations, do not have hunting licences and have no previous hunting experience. They allegedly travel to South Africa to hunt a rhinoceros at a selected location, identified by the recruiter,” reads the report.

Expedition expenses had been covered by the recruiters, who also made Czechs sign a declaration to give up the rhino trophy when they returned home.

“Once the trophy reaches the Czech Republic it is laundered into the illegal trade,” says the report, which notes that Czech and South African authorities were co-operating to deal with the new trend.

According to a summary report co-authored by Richard Emslie, the Pietermaritzburg-based scientific officer of the African Rhino Specialist Group, rhino horn smuggling remained “one of the most structured criminal activities currently faced by Cites”.

There was also evidence that Polish and Russian proxy hunters were being recruited for the same purpose, while syndicates were scrambling to fill the growing demand for rhino horn by raiding museums, antique dealers, auction houses, taxidermists and private collections worldwide.

Since 2009 at least 94 rhino horns had been stolen in Argentina, Europe and the US.

Europol had reported at least 67 rhino horn thefts and 15 attempted thefts in Europe since 2011, although the spate of museum thefts appeared to have dropped significantly since the UK and some European nations introduced tighter controls last year to prevent rhino horns being laundered into the black market.

Although the South African Department of Environmental Affairs had been alerted to the bogus hunts by Poles and Czechs, the Cites report said there was still a need for vigilance to ensure that only bona fide hunters were granted permits.

Ironically, there were indications that the clampdown on Vietnamese and other bogus hunters and tougher domestic clamps in South Africa may be driving the unrelenting rhino-poaching spree.

According to Emslie’s report, the clampdown on bogus hunts and the plugging of other loopholes “appears to have significantly constricted the illicit rhino horn supply from pseudo-hunting; and this might have resulted in shifts to other sources of horn such as poaching (the largest source of illegal horn), illegal dehorning, or thefts”.

However, Emslie said other factors could be also at play, including increasing corruption or the emergence of new rhino horn markets.

Mozambique was also emerging as a major link in the chain in the horn smuggling routes to the Far East, with evidence that, increasingly, horns were being shifted out via Maputo International Airport and other sea or airports in Mozambique.

Horns were then sent to Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Mauritius and to Vietnam and China.

There was also evidence that local professional hunters were involved in the scams, particularly after the country imposed tighter regulations on the number of rhinos which could be shot by a single hunter.

“In some cases, professional hunters in South Africa, rather than the ‘hunter’ listed on the permit, illegally shot the rhino, which is a violation of the country’s hunting laws.” - The Mercury