By Phillip Rawls
Two South African brothers have been indicted in Alabama on charges of conspiracy to sell illegal rhinoceros hunting trips to Americans and of selling rhino horns on the black market.
Federal prosecutors unsealed the indictments of Dawie and Janneman Groenewald and their safari company Thursday in Montgomery.
Federal officials said the brothers traveled throughout the United States between 2008 and 2010 to attend hunting convention and gun shows, where they sold hunts at their ranch in Mussina, South Africa. Prosecutors said hunters paid between $3,500 and $15,000 to participate. The horns from the dead rhinos were sold on the black market.
The brothers and their company face charges of conspiracy, illegal wildlife trafficking, mail fraud, international money laundering and structuring bank deposits to avoid reporting requirements.
Daniel Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the indictments were part of Operation Crash, an undercover investigation into illegal trafficking of rhinos that has already resulted in a dozen convictions. More arrests are likely.
Prosecutors said the case was brought in Alabama because Janneman Groenewald, 44, used to live in Autaugaville, about 20 miles west of Montgomery, and their company, Out of Africa Adverturous Safaris, had bank accounts in Alabama.
The brothers' company had closed for the night by the time prosecutors announced the indictment and they could not be reached for comment.
U.S. Attorney George Beck said neither brother has been arrested, but the United States would seek extradition. No hunters were charged.
Dawie Groenewald, 46, pleaded guilty in Montgomery in 2010 to a felony charge involving a leopard that was illegally hunted in South Africa and imported to the United States. He was fined $30,000.
According to prosecutors, the hunters were told that trophies from the hunts could not be legally exported. Instead, the brothers kept the horns and then sold them on the black market, prosecutors said.
Ashe said the American hunters should have been suspicious of the "bargain basement prices" for the kills.
"Frankly these hunters should have known better. All hunters should consider this a warning that when they are involved in an overseas hunt for any species, they should make sure that the hunt that they are considering is offered by a reputable guide service operating in a country certified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as managing its wildlife responsibly and sustainably," Ashe said.
Federal officials said the hunts could have been made legal if the safari company had gone through the permitting process in South Africa, but then the horns couldn't have been sold.
Beck said each rhino horn, weighing five to 10 pounds each, can bring more than $30,000 a pound because some people believe they have cure everything from hangovers to cancer.
The charges against the brothers carry maximum sentences ranging from five years to 20 years.