By Barbara Liston

(Reuters) - A South African company has been indicted in Alabama for selling illegal rhinoceros hunts to Americans and secretly trafficking in the endangered animals’ horns, which sell on the black market at prices higher than gold, prosecutors said on Thursday.

The 18-count indictment charged Valinor Trading CC, which operated in the United States as Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris, and company owners Dawie Groenewald, 46, and his brother, Janneman Groenewald, 44, with conspiracy, Lacey Act violations, mail fraud, money laundering and structuring bank deposits to avoid reporting requirements.

All species of rhinoceros are protected under U.S. and international laws, including the Lacey Act, which addresses illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“This case should send a warning shot to outfitters and hunters that the sale of illegal hunts in the U.S. will be vigorously prosecuted regardless of where the hunt takes place,” Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division Sam Hirsch said in the statement.

The whereabouts of the Groenewalds, and whether they have hired a lawyer, could not immediately be determined.

National Geographic magazine reported that Dawie Groenewald was arrested in 2010 in South Africa, along with 10 others and that a multi-count case has been under way for four years.

Both Groenewald brothers are South African nationals. Janneman Groenewald lived and operated out of Alabama's Autauga County, where he maintained company bank accounts.

Nine American hunters paid up to $15,000 per animal for a total of 11 hunts sold at hunting conventions and gun shows in the United States between 2005 and 2010.

None of the hunters was charged because prosecutors said the hunters were tricked by the Groenewalds into believing they were shooting legally at “problem” rhinos. The Groenewalds obtained no hunting permits from the Republic of South Africa or local government, the indictment said.

The hunts took place at a ranch in Mussina, Limpopo Province, South Africa co-owned by the Groenewalds and American investors, according to the indictment.

After killing or capturing a rhino, the hunters posed for photos with the carcasses that appeared on company marketing brochures, the indictment said. Dawie Groenewald, who supervised the hunts, then cut off the horns with chainsaws and knives.

The population of rhinos, indigenous to southern Africa, is being decimated by poachers who supply a demand for horns for decorative and supposed medicinal purposes, prosecutors said.

The investigation was part of ongoing Operation Crash, named for a term used to describe a rhino herd, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It has resulted in 26 arrests and 18 convictions, with prison terms as high as 70 months for illegal rhino hunting or trafficking in horns.

 

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Dan Grebler)