National Geographic : 2016 Oct
74 national geographic • october 2016 Texas plumber holding the very same leopard. Five years later, in 2011, Hubbard believed Groenewald was trafficking in wildlife again. Nearly a dozen American men who had gone on hunting adventures with Groenewald’s company told Hubbard a similar story: They hadn’t intended to hunt rhinos, but on their arrival at Prachtig, Groenewald had told them about a “problem” rhino that needed to be put down. Groenewald charged them an average of $10,000—a fraction of the going rate for a legal rhino hunt. The Americans were allowed to photograph their kills, but rhino photos were all they were allowed to take home. Groenewald kept the horns. Hubbard opened his own case, Operation Preposterous, which was rolled into Operation Crash (a group of rhinos is a crash), a multistate rhino horn–trafficking investigation launched by the FWS in 2011. Still active, Operation Crash is one of the agency’s most successful investiga- tions, connecting antique dealers, auction hous- es, a gang of Irish thieves known as the Rathkeale Rovers, a former associate in Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel, and others to rhino horn traf- ficking in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Africa. As of July 2016, Operation Crash had resulted in the conviction of 30 people, 405 months of prison time, and $75 million in seized property. Unlike most targets of Operation Crash, who trafficked old or antique horn, the Groenewald brothers are accused of killing rhinos. The U.S. Department of Justice charged the brothers with conducting 11 rhino hunts illegal under South African law, in violation of the U.S. Lacey Act, which makes it a crime to violate any U.S. or foreign conservation law. On April 4, 2015, the department contacted South African au- thorities requesting their extradition. “Getting them extradited back to the U.S. is a high prior- ity for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Chief Woody says. But Groenewald appears to have stalled the Americans’ case against him too. “At first we had great cooperation from South Africa,” Hubbard says, recalling early communications with South African prosecutors to prepare for extradition. Then, he says, for some reason official commu- nication between the South African govern- ment and the U.S. Department of Justice slowed. Among the reasons for delay, Hubbard specu- lates, is the Krüger lawsuit. (Citing “matters pending in court,” South Africa’s National Pros- ecuting Authority declined National Geograph- ic’s request for an interview.) The lawsuit also appears to have stalled the prosecution of Groe- newald’s longtime associate Hugo Ras, a luxury safari operator and accused rhino killer, whose hunting clients have included Eric Trump and Donald Trump, Jr., sons of U.S. presidential can- didate Donald Trump. Ras is accused of heading a 10-person rhino-poaching and horn-trafficking syndicate that killed rhinos using dart guns and lethal levels of etorphine hydrochloride, also known as M99, a regulated opioid that is up to 80,000 times more powerful than morphine. ‘Buffalo Is My Animal’ I climb into Groenewald’s shining Toyota Hilux 4x4 pickup truck, with its bank of modified hal- ogen headlights and luxury padded seat in the bed for viewing wildlife, and we go for a tour of his breeding estate. South African game ranchers breed most anything a safari client will pay to hunt. In 2013 a buffalo named Mystery was sold to an investor group led by Johann Rupert, who controls the world’s second largest luxury-goods conglomer- ate, Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, for a record $4.1 million. In 2014 Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa sold three white-flanked im- palas as breeding stock for $2.5 million, and this year an investor paid $2.8 million for a quarter To Groenewald, you’re not a poacher if you kill what’s yours. For him, what is legal comes down to one question: When is a rhino mine?