By Paul Kvinta
South African Johnny Olivier was just looking for an easy job to pay the bills. But after agreeing to help a buddy collect lion bones for an international wildlife-trafficking kingpin, he found himself in the middle of an unprecedented poaching scheme that involved imported prostitutes, heavy gambling, bags of cash, and the slaughter of more than thirty rhinos. Welcome to the bizarre, bleeding edge of wildlife crime.
He turned a corner in the Emperors Palace Casino and froze. Peter, Chai, and the others lingered near some slot machines. He stared at them for a moment, looked left and right, then headed for the exit.
Had they seen him?
It was June 2010. He had cut off communication two years earlier, after the deal had gone bad. They’d lied to him. He’d ended up in a reeking 13-by-20-foot jail cell with 23 other guys for three days in the boondocks east of Johannesburg. Sure, Chai had paid his $20,000 fine. But where was Chai when his identity—John Olivier, 51— appeared beneath the headline "Two Guilty of Possession of Rhino Horns"? Where was Chai when he’d lost his job and was unemployed for 14 months? Johnny was friendly with the owner of a seafood restaurant at the casino. He popped in to visit occasionally. But the last person he wanted to bump into was Chai.
"Johnny!" said Peter, rounding a bank of slot machines.
"How are you, Johnny?"
"I’m fine, Peter. Chai."
In the beginning they’d seemed harmless enough. They were lion-bone traders. According to his friend K.K., they bought the bones from South African game farmers and sold them to a guy in Laos. Asians used them for medicine or something. It’s all legal, K.K. had said. It certainly helped the farmers. They sold lion hunts to rich Americans, and after exporting the trophy heads, they had a pile of bones. Why not sell them to the Asians?
Maybe it was a stretch to call K.K. his friend. He didn’t have many friends. It’s not that he wasn’t friendly. He was. But ever since his company—he worked for an auto-parts business—had relocated him from Durban to Joburg in 2007, he’d never found his niche. His wife was back in Durban, and the big city could be lonely for a graying, middle-aged man living by himself. Johnny had close-cropped hair, leathery skin, and a trim white mustache. It didn’t help that he’d lost most of the hearing in his left ear during his military service in the 1970s and ’80s, when an antitank mine exploded in Angola. He didn’t drink, so bars were out. He liked watching rugby on TV, or he’d go to the golf course. That’s where he’d met K.K. All you had to do was sit in the clubhouse and you could pair up with someone to play a round. That was nice.
K.K. was Thai and worked at the airport for Thai Airways. Johnny spoke some Thai, which K.K. was thrilled to learn. Would Johnny consider helping his friends in the lion-bone business? There were four or five of them, all from Thailand, and their English was limited. The Afrikaner farmers struggled just pronouncing their names. That’s why they’d adopted nicknames. Punpitak Chunchom was Peter. Chumlong Lemtongthai, the ringleader, was Chai. Johnny recalled the blissful months he’d spent in Thailand as a young man. What a paradise! The beaches, the scuba diving. The young girls. Whatever you wanted! Sure, he’d help K.K.’s friends. They paid him $100 for each complete skeleton, and he needed the money, what with rent in Joburg and his mortgage in Durban.
"Come work for us again, Johnny," said Chai, the slot machines jingling and clattering around them.
"No way," said Johnny.
"We have lots of business."
"Forget it, Chai."
"We’re only doing lion bones. Everything’s legal. No rhino horns."
Rhino horns had been the problem, hadn’t they? After initially doing lion bones, they’d instructed him to find rhino horns. What did he know about rhino horns? He certainly didn’t know the bloody laws about rhino horns. Look, when he was a kid growing up on a farm, if he wanted to shoot a buck, a guinea fowl, whatever, he could go shoot it. You didn’t need permits or crap like that. Chai said rhino horn sold for more than the price of gold in Vietnam, more than cocaine. So Johnny found a guy, a safari operator. It was October 2008. They all agreed to meet at a restaurant (in a little town outside Joburg called Delmas). The Thais whipped out a scale right there in the parking lot. After weighing the three horns, they began pulling $100 notes from their socks, $60,000 worth. They loaded the horns into Johnny’s white Mazda and took off. That’s when a bunch of cars raced up, gravel flying, cops screaming. Next thing Johnny knew, he had a plastic zip tie around his wrists.
"I’m not interested, Chai."
"Think about it, Johnny."
"I was just leaving, in fact."
"We’ll call you, Johnny."
She realized something was wrong even before entering the house. A Thai woman named Mau met her in the driveway and grabbed her passport. The signature page listed her as Boonta Kongklin, but everyone called her Joy.
"You won’t need this," Mau said.
She wasn’t used to people snatching her things. She was 34 years old and tiny, not five feet tall, maybe 90 pounds. But she was feisty. Years earlier, when her boyfriend had smashed her in the face, she’d fought back. She’d sustained a cracked cheekbone, a gash over her eye, and three days in the hospital. But she’d fought back. And she left him, despite being four months pregnant. She didn’t take shit from anyone.
But this was different. She didn’t know where she was. There was a farmhouse and an empty swimming pool near several cages with colorful birds. She was exhausted from the flight from Bangkok. A white woman had collected her that morning at the Johannesburg airport, and they’d driven 30 minutes. It was October 2010. "We’re going to Mau’s house," the woman had said. Who was Mau?
Inside the house were five other Thai ladies chatting. Mau approached them and slapped one so hard her head snapped back. Silence. "I told you no talking." Joy was to share a room with them. There were no beds, only blankets.
Her pulse quickened.
Back in Thailand, her friend had been vague about the details. All that registered was "good job in South Africa, good money, great boss." What choice did she have? In Pattaya, the beach town where she was living on her own, she was close to starving. Fewer farang (foreigners) were coming for the white sand and turquoise water. At the laundry where she worked, her pay had been cut to $80 a month. Most of that she sent to her grandmother and her seven-year-old son, four hours away in the small city of Nakhon Sawan where she grew up. Her parents were dead.
Life had not always been about survival. When Joy was 16, she discovered that she could sing. Her rock band played gigs across Bangkok, mostly clubs for officials and rich people. She wore four-inch heels and red-carpet outfits. But then her vocal cords failed, and the doctors said no more singing. That was ages ago. When her son arrived, sometimes she could feed him only rice and water.
In Bangkok, a woman she didn’t know had handed her a plane ticket and a visa. On the flight she told herself over and over, "If something isn’t right, I will go to the police."
Now Mau stood over her. "I get your first 60,000 rand [about $8,700\. After that you can have your passport back."
By the spring of 2010, well before he knew about Johnny and Joy, Julian Rademeyer couldn’t imagine South Africa’s rhino-poaching crisis becoming more outrageous. How could it? Rademeyer was an investigative reporter for South Africa’s Media24 newspaper group, and he’d covered wars, corruption, and his share of crazy African stories. But the crisis threatening South Africa’s 21,000-some rhinos was surreal from the start. From 1980 to 2007, a total of 260 rhinos were killed for their horns, an average of nine per year. But in 2008, poachers killed 83 rhinos, and in 2009 the number jumped to 122. A year later 333 were slaughtered, and the figures would continue to skyrocket: 448 in 2011 and 668 in 2012. Rademeyer couldn’t read a newspaper without wincing at yet another gruesome photo of a dead rhino with its face hacked off.
He found the situation stranger in light of South Africa’s conservation history. A few decades before, the country had been lauded for saving the white rhino from global extinction, an intervention considered possibly the greatest conservation story ever. Africa’s two species of rhino, the white and the black, had once roamed much of the sub-Sahara. But by 1900, colonial big-game hunting had left maybe 50 white rhinos standing, all of them huddled in a corner of KwaZulu-Natal province. In the 1960s, wildlife officials created new parks and allowed rhino sales to private game farms. Aggressively managed for population growth, rhinos were relocated across the country and into former habitat states like Zimbabwe and Namibia. By the 21st century, there were 20,405 white rhinos in eight countries. South Africa had also become the primary redoubt for black rhinos, with about 40 percent of that species’s 5,055 animals.
The poaching crisis threatened all this. As best Rademeyer or anyone knew, the horn trade (banned in 1972 by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) was fueled by Vietnam, where a high-level official was rumored to have cured his cancer by downing a tonic of ground-up horn and water. On the streets of Hanoi, an expanding middle class was buying rhino horn for $65,000 a kilo, despite zero evidence that it cures anything. Asia’s three species of rhino had almost disappeared. Meanwhile, poachers had decimated rhino herds in the countries north of South Africa, and they were now invading Kruger National Park from Mozambique. The government had dispatched the army and effectively turned its flagship park into a war zone. South Africa’s 400 private rhino owners, who managed a quarter of the nation’s herd, didn’t have armies, and soaring security costs were forcing them to auction off their animals. Rhino prices were collapsing. By 2010, a dead rhino was worth more than a live one.
Rademeyer had never covered the environment, nor did he consider himself a tree hugger. He’d made his bones investigating the mob bosses and hit men of Johannesburg’s underworld, where personalities tended toward the flamboyant and brazen. But in the spring of 2010, Rademeyer began looking into the poaching syndicates, and one thing became clear: Joburg’s mobsters had nothing on these guys. For starters, poaching gangs were chock-full of people charged with protecting rhinos—game farmers, veterinarians, park scouts, government officials. One outfit consisted of Afrikaner game farmers and vets who acquired and killed rhinos, dehorned them, then buried their bodies in a giant pit. Another syndicate, the Musina Mafia, featured a convicted South African poacher exploiting the economic collapse over the border in Zimbabwe, dispatching other poachers to target rhinos in the country’s last remaining conservancies. Still another network involved Vietnamese diplomats trafficking horns through their embassy in Pretoria and avoiding prosecution through diplomatic immunity.
But the story of Johnny and Joy achieved a degree of creative immorality that surprised even Rademeyer. It was a tale of greed, guns, sex, and corruption that involved not one but two types of trafficking, all used to manipulate and exploit South Africa’s vaunted wildlife-conservation system. Had prosecutors not so mishandled it, Rademeyer could have stuck to chronicling the misdeeds. But in the end, to make things right, he had to become part of the story himself.
After their chance meeting at the casino in the summer of 2010, Johnny agreed to moonlight for Chai again. After the arrest, he’d been unable to find work in Durban, so he’d returned to Joburg and found another job in the auto-parts business. Still, money was tight, especially now that he was living on his own again. He agreed to source lion bones for Chai, nothing more. More....