‘Groenewald gang’ trial postponed (again)
By Julian Rademeyer
UPDATED: 23 September 2016 – The trial of Dawie Groenewald, a notorious South African game farmer and alleged “rhino horn syndicate kingpin”, has been set down for 15 June 2017. It has been six years since various suspects linked to the so-called “Groenewald gang” were arrested in highly-publicised police raids. The case has been subject to numerous delays pending the outcome of a court challenge to the South African government’s moratorium on internal trade in rhino horn. Charged alongside Groenewald are several co-accused including his wife and a number of professional hunters and veterinarians.
If the accused eventually do stand trial, they are expected to face thousands of counts of illegal hunting, dealing in rhino horns, racketeering, money-laundering and fraud. The criminal indictment in its current form runs to more than 700 pages. And close to 200 witnesses could be called to testify against them.
In the course of researching Killing for Profit, I spent several hours interviewing Groenewald about the case. It is the only time that he has publicly broken his silence and given detailed interviews about the accusations levelled against him. Here is an edited extract from the book. Below it are a number of key documents setting out the State’s case against Groenewald and his co-accused.
‘Very good money’
18 June 2011
Dawie Groenewald would shoot a hundred rhinos a year, given half a chance.
‘It’s a good business,’ he says. In fact, right now he’d probably kill every rhino he could lay his hands on. ‘I feel so fucking angry about the system that I want to shoot as many rhinos as I can get,’ he tells me. ‘And that’s not right.’
It is almost a year since Groenewald, his wife Sariette and nine others, including professional hunters, veterinarians, a pilot and farm labourers, were arrested by the police’s organised crime unit. The fifteen-month investigation – called ‘Project Cruiser’ – was described by police as ‘a huge stride in our undying effort to thwart rhino poaching’. A SAPS spokesman, Colonel Vish Naidoo, claimed that the Groenewald syndicate had been linked to literally ‘hundreds of rhino poaching incidents’. Newspapers were filled with grisly accounts of the ‘Rhino Slaughter Farm’ and the rotting carcasses exhumed from mass graves.
Outside the Musina Regional Court, where the suspects appeared, demonstrators held up placards exhorting: ‘Sny Dawie se horing af ’ (Cut off Dawie’s horn). There were cries of ‘Rhino killer!’ as Groenewald arrived at court with his wife.
Prosecutors threw the book at him. The indictment in the matter of the State v Dawid Jacobus Groenewald and ten others runs to 700 pages, and there are 185 witnesses lined up to testify. Groenewald himself faces 1,736 counts of racketeering, money-laundering, fraud, intimidation, illegal hunting and dealing in rhino horns. He is accused of killing fifty-nine of his own rhinos for their horns, then getting rid of the carcasses by burying them, burning them or selling them to a local butchery.
In addition he’s charged with illegally dehorning dozens of the animals and selling at least 384 rhino horns over a four-year period. The case could drag on for years.
‘I am not a poacher’
But Groenewald is adamant. ‘I am not a poacher,’ he tells me as we sit on the deck of the hunting lodge at his farm Prachtig, sixty kilometres south of Musina. ‘That word makes me sick. It is not necessary for me to poach a rhino.’
The first rhino hunts on Groenewald’s farm took place in about 2008. ‘A guy called Alexander Steyn came and hunted here. I bought the rhinos for him to hunt. And it was through him that I met the Vietnamese agent,’ Groenewald says.
Steyn had previously been implicated in the ‘canned’ hunting of cheetahs. According to records held by the Department of Environmental Affairs, he was also the outfitter in a number of rhino hunts conducted by Vietnamese nationals. Groenewald won’t be drawn on the identity of the mysterious Vietnamese agent – a man who is apparently based in Pretoria.
Groenewald bought dozens of rhinos on auction from SANParks. ‘Through the years, they have been the biggest supplier of rhinos in South Africa,’ he tells me. ‘I don’t believe they can make a profit without selling rhinos.’ In 2008, SANParks made R22 million from rhino sales to private entities. The following year, the amount increased to R52 million. Many of the biggest buyers were also the biggest organisers of rhino hunts for Vietnamese clients.
Groenewald says he bought forty-four rhinos from SANParks between 2008 and 2009. ‘Ten were bulls and thirty-four were cows and calves,’ he tells me. Prosecutors contend that a total of at least forty-eight rhinos were bought and moved to Prachtig between June and December 2008.
Feeding them costs money. ‘It costs me R3 million a year just to feed the animals on this farm,’ Groenewald says. ‘People don’t understand that. Now and then you have to hunt a rhino to make some money to run the farm.
‘What does it matter who shoots a rhino’
‘Back then I was selling a rhino hunt for $35 000. At that time you could buy a rhino for R150 000 (about $18 000). When the Vietnamese came in, all of a sudden they started paying R50 000, R60 000 and R70 000 (about $8 000) a kilogram. Rhino prices shot through the roof.
‘American hunters won’t pay that. A guy who sells a rhino hunt to an American is fucked up, because he’s not going to make any money. What does it matter who shoots a rhino, an American or a Vietnamese? You go with whoever can pay the most money. That’s the way it works. It’s not my problem what they do with the horn over there.’
‘I must be honest with you – for me, to do these hunts is very good money. It is really good money. And for those guys [the Vietnamese] it is good money.’
As the South African government has slowly closed the tap on hunters from Southeast Asia, Groenewald has been lobbying behind the scenes to keep them going. His lawyer has visited Vietnam at least twice to hold discussions with CITES authorities there, and Groenewald has threatened to launch a legal challenge to increasingly stringent rhino hunting regulations.
But the Vietnamese are not hunters, he says frankly. ‘None of the Vietnamese can hunt…I’ll be straight with you. They are not here to hunt. They are here to get the horn. That’s what makes it worse. You’re killing a rhino with a guy who is actually not a hunter, just for the horn. But we make them fucking shoot, so they’re doing it all legally.’
Groenewald blames the ‘system’ for the killing. ‘I don’t enjoy killing rhinos … but I’m killing them because of the system. We are forced to shoot them because that is the only way the trophies can be sold and exported. You have to kill the animal to sell its horns.’
The State versus Dawie Groenewald
This affidavit, dated 22 March 2012, was drawn up by Colonel Johan Jooste, head of the Environmental Crime Unit in the police’s Directorate of Priority Crime Investigations, commonly known as the Hawks. It sets out the background of Project Cruiser, the codename for the police investigation into Groenewald, and details how the syndicate that Groenewald is accused of heading allegedly operated.
Markus Hofmeyr is in charge of the Kruger National Park’s veterinary wildlife service. In September 2010, following the arrest of Groenewald, Hofmeyr went to Groenewald’s farm, Prachtig. In this affidavit – which is expected to form part of the evidence against Groenewald – he described seeing the burnt carcasses of some rhino and live animals that had their horns cut to the quick, possibly with a chainsaw.
The indictment against Groenewald and his co-accused runs to more than 700 pages including schedules and witness lists. It is only available in Afrikaans.
In January 2010, several months before his arrest in South Africa, alleged rhino horn syndicate ‘mastermind’ Dawie Groenewald was detained in the United States and arraigned on charges of selling an illegal leopard hunt to a US sports hunter. A federal grand jury indicted him on charges of smuggling and infringements of the Lacey Act, the US wildlife statute. He later pled guilty, was sentenced to ‘time served’ and fined $30,000. Here are the court papers.