Published by Traveller 24, 15 July 2016
Author: Julian Rademeyer
Rifle in hand, a Vietnamese man with shoulder-length hair squats next to the carcass of a rhino. It’s a photograph taken in late 2006 on a game farm in Limpopo — “the first legal hunt of a rhino by a Vietnamese national” recorded in that province. The man in the picture called himself Michael Chu, but his real name is Chu Ðang Khoa.
Today, Chu is a wealthy businessman and notorious playboy. In numerous Vietnamese press reports — each one more breathless than the next — Chu is described as a “diamond tycoon” and “mysterious character” who spent several years in SA, where he “specialised in rhino horns, ivory and diamonds”. His ties to SA are such that the press have even nicknamed him “Khoa Nam Phi” or “Khoa, the South African”.
What the tabloids don’t say is that Chu left SA under a cloud in 2011, after being arrested for the illegal possession of five rhino horns. He was convicted, fined R40,000 and deported.
But according to a new report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Chu has emerged as a key player in a company supplying wildlife from SA to the Vinpearl Safari Park, a bizarre, Jurassic Park-style zoo on a Vietnamese island in the Gulf of Thailand. The zoo, built for a staggering US$147m, opened in December last year with plans to include more than 100 white rhino on the site. And the man helping Vinpearl source the rhino and other animals from private owners in SA: Chu himself.
Alarmingly, Chu is doing this using a company he registered in SA back in 2005 known as DKC Trading, which was set up ostensibly to trade balau and keruing wood furniture “imported straight from our manufacturing plant”.
Though he was just a single cog in the apparatus of rhino horn smuggling, Chu’s emergence in SA, and his continued involvement, is symptomatic of the wider cracks in the judicial system that have allowed crooks like him to thrive.
It would be difficult to overestimate the gravity of the rhino slaughter.
Today, there are only 25,000 rhinos left in Africa, 79% of which are in SA. Over the past decade, more than 6,000 rhinos have fallen to poachers’ bullets in Africa, or been shot in “pseudo-hunts” authorised by gullible or corrupt bureaucrats.
The trajectory is alarming: last year, 1,342 rhinos were slaughtered across Africa, compared to 262 in 2008.
The beneficiaries: transnational crime syndicates, which have capitalised on the voracious appetite for rhino horn. As it stands, rhino horn fetches up to $50,000/kg — higher than the $43,000/kg for gold.
Yet SA’s department of environmental affairs issued permits to ship 130 animals to either Vinpearl Safaris or Phú Quoc Tourism Development between September 2015 and February 2016.
Among them were 20 tigers, 23 lions, 12 monkeys and two hyenas. It seems many of these animals came from Voi Game Lodge, a 924ha farm in the North West province owned by Chu’s DKC Trading. At the lodge, some 50 tigers and numerous rhinos are kept in captivity.
But not only has Chu’s lodge allegedly been involved in “pseudo-hunts” by Vietnamese nationals, it appears that tigers have been hunted there too.
Here, it seems Chu is exploiting the legal lacuna around tigers, which aren’t indigenous to SA and are classified as an “exotic species”. As a result, you don’t need a permit to hunt tigers in most provinces of SA.
Though international law says you can’t trade tiger parts, concerns have arisen that tiger bones may be smuggled out of SA disguised as lion bones. A report by the wildlife trade monitor Traffic calls for an investigation into “the Vietnamese-owned tiger facility in North West” — a clear reference to Voi Lodge.
Already, Chu’s lodge has caused controversy for allegedly staging “pseudo-hunts”, a fraudulent means for crime syndicates to source rhino horn by using third parties to apply for the handful of hunting permits granted by government each year.
The first two rhinos shot at Voi Lodge were shot by Vietnamese. Hunting records identify the professional hunter who accompanied them as Frikkie Jacobs from Shingalana Game Breeders & Hunting Safaris.
In fact, Jacobs conducted at least 48 rhino hunts with suspected Vietnamese pseudo-hunters between June 2009 and July 2011, according to North West province records.
There appear to be some ties between Voi Game Lodge and Shingalana. Photographs taken by several Vietnamese visitors to the lodge show them hunting, barbecuing and drinking with Jacobs and Shingalana staff.
As recently as December last year, a Vietnamese national named Van Thanh Chu, who helps run Voi Lodge, posed for a photograph in the Shingalana helicopter. His relationship with Shingalana dates back to 2010, when he apparently shot a white rhino there, with Frikkie Jacobs as the professional hunter who accompanied him.
Photographs show Van Thanh Chu posing in front of caged tigers and lions at Voi Lodge. In one photo, he crouches behind a dead tiger, rifle in hand. “Went hunting yesterday,” he wrote.
But Jacobs denies any knowledge of illegal activity at Voi Lodge: “We have nothing to do with that farm … There is no relationship or business partnership or anything. I’ve hunted plains game there to help them bring in some money. ” He says that if any of the rhino hunts he conducted with Vietnamese nationals were pseudo-hunts, he was not aware of it.
“They were all legal hunts with permits.”
His father, Kobus Jacobs, the owner of Shingalana, also denies impropriety. “We have nothing to do with Voi Lodge. Anything we did was legal … I can put you in jail if you say you are linking me with that … For heaven’s sake, we are here to protect the rhinos.”
But Voi Lodge itself has clear links to the illegal rhino trade.
One of the regular visitors to the lodge, Chu Duc Gu Lit, was one of the most prolific of the Vietnamese “pseudo-hunters”, shooting four rhinos in three years. His friend Nguyen Ðang Khánh also hunted rhinos.
In 2012, Chu Duc Gu Lit and Nguyen were arrested in a police raid on a house in Midlands Estate, a gated security complex in Centurion. A police tactical unit “breached the front door of the house” and both men were arrested as they tried to escape.
Investigators found a “professionally” made secret compartment between the back seats and the boot of a Volvo parked in the garage. Inside were two rhino horns, which were still “red and wet”, indicating that they were from a fresh kill. DNA analysis linked the horns to a poaching incident in KwaZulu Natal’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve.
Another, older horn was found inside a Volvo, and a second vehicle at the house, a Mercedes-Benz S 350, had previously been owned by the Vietnamese embassy in SA.
Charges against Nguyen were dropped after prosecutors concluded a plea bargain in which Chu Duc Gu Lit pleaded guilty to charges of illegal possession of rhino horn.
In December 2013, a Johannesburg court sentenced him to five years in prison. He was released after serving about half the sentence.
Despite DKC’s odious record, one of Vietnam’s largest conglomerates, Vingroup, has chosen to use it to source the rhinos for its “safari zoo”.
Vinpearl is certainly ambitious. Built on Phú Quoc Island, it boasts that it has 400 species of plants and “3,000 wild animals representing 150 different species, many of which are considered rare and endangered”. Tigers, elephants and rhinos feature on the website.
Quite where those rhinos came from is anyone’s guess. SA’s department of environmental affairs says that four white rhinos were exported from OR Tambo to Vietnam between October 2015 and March 2016, but the permits “in respect of these specific shipments do not, however, reflect Vinpearl, DKC Trading or Phú Quoc”.
Still, Chu’s DKC Trading has confirmed it exported animals to Vinpearl, including “lion, zebra, tigers, hyenas and monkeys”.
At the park, it seems the animals can expect a rough time. In February, “itinerant zoo keeper” Peter Dickinson said expatriate veterinary staff employed at Vinpearl had abandoned Phú Quoc Island “in disgust after the deaths of over 1,000 birds and nearly 700 mammals, including 20 giraffe”. The cause: “parasites, disease, underfeeding and horrific accident”.
Vingroup denies that, but admits that some birds and animals died “because of the impact of the long shipping process.”
According to environmental affairs, 43 applications for export permits to send rhinos to Vinpearl were received over a number of months. Ultimately, the department recommended the export permits be denied by provincial authorities “due to concerns [about] the quantities and further information required from the applicants on the appropriateness of the destination”.
But it is unlikely that DKC Trading or Vinpearl will give up their attempts to get their hands on their coveted 100 rhinos.