The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Nature

The Invasivore's Dilemma

Bun Lai is rolling rocks in the dark along a craggy coastline, clawing on all fours after the little crabs that burst like roaches from underneath, stuffing them into a bucket. 

With his spotlight and his pail and his perfect snap-on hair, he looks like an action figure. We are on a clandestine mission that began at 10:30 P.M. at Miya’s, Bun’s New Haven, Connecticut, sushi restaurant, where I asked him who did the foraging for the restaurant, which has become famous for serving invasive organisms. “You’re looking at him,” he replied. 

So here we are, at low tide on a steamy summer night, scrabbling around a closed Connecticut beach park. When the crabs bolt, you must quickly slap your hands on top of them, then get your fingers underneath. They scratch unhappily at your skin, but they are only the size of 50-cent pieces. It feels like a prickly manicure. Sometimes you can get them to hang by their claws from the web of your thumb.

{%{"image":"","align":"left","size":"small","caption":"Invasivore Bun Lai on the hunt in Long Island Sound."}%}

The first time Bun did this was in 2005, with his buddy Yancey Orr, a waiter at Miya’s who went on to get his Ph.D. in anthropology at Yale and now teaches in Australia. They’d gone to the shore because Bun wanted to use more local ingredients. But they had no idea where to start. In Connecticut, Orr mused by e-mail, “no one really interacts with the environment at the level of caloric intake.” 

They tried oysters but worried about toxins in the filter feeders. They chewed seaweeds. Then they noticed the speckled brown crabs scuttling around the rocks. Bun, who grew up playing in Long Island Sound, didn’t remember them from childhood. He discovered that they were Asian shore crabs, an invasive species that arrived in 1988, dumped out with the ballast from some cargo ship, and had already taken over the coastline from New Hampshire to New Jersey, like a marauding army of nanobots. “At that point,” Bun says, “I was already working on evolving sushi into a cuisine centered around more planet-healthy ingredients. The invasive-species thing made perfect sense.”

Bun and Orr had no idea what to do with the crabs. “We sautéed them, tried them soaked in red wine, boiled, raw, et cetera,” Orr recalled. “Raw was a bit rough, as they crawled around in your mouth and didn’t taste so great.” Fried whole, however, they turned bright orange and ultracrispy, like Doritos with legs. The crabs have been a staple at Miya’s ever since.

Bun is not your typical sushi chef. This 44-year-old son of New Haven has the smooth, rippled body of a porn star and a voice like Captain America. He grew up near Yale, where his Chinese father worked as a medical researcher. When he was nine, his parents divorced, his father moved away, and his Japanese mother opened Miya’s, which was named for Bun’s sister—though since he took over he has been threatening to change the name to Bun’s After Dark and use the Underalls logo for his sign. He was the captain of his prep-school wrestling team, and he used to fight illegal mixed-martial-arts matches in a Waterbury, Connecticut, warehouse. Now he fights for food justice. On his bookshelves, you can find everything from The Cornel West Reader to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Kickboxing. During one of his previous foraging operations, he was arrested for trespassing while taking a leak in the woods. 

{%{"image":"","align":"right","size":"small","caption":"Fried Asian shore crabs turn orange and crispy, like Doritos with legs."}%}

{%{"image":"","caption":"Invasivore Bun Lai on the hunt in Long Island Sound."}%}

A little lower down the dark beach, Joe Roman is pulling periwinkles off the rocks, tossing the little snails into another pail. A bespectacled, late-forties conservation biologist at the University of Vermont and the creator of a website called Eat the Invaders (“Fighting invasive species, one bite at a time!”), Roman tells us how Littorina littorea, a European native, arrived in the Northeast in the 1860s and began eating salt marshes from Maine to New York. Our coasts are starker and less productive than they used to be, thanks to this file-tongued little mollusk, which has endangered numerous local species. In places you can find 700 periwinkles per square yard.

The Asian shore crab may wind up being even worse. It eats anything it can fit in its mouth, including native crabs and juvenile lobsters. “This is a totally different system now than just a few decades ago,” Roman says. “Go to a place where the invaders are present and you see a battlefield.” And the crab, which can lay up to 200,000 eggs per year, is expanding its forces in all directions.

Like their hundreds of fellow invasive species from Miami to Malibu, these two aggressors will continue to engulf the Republic. But not these particular troops. These will be dinner. If all goes according to plan, we will spend the next 24 hours apprehending the alien and the overabundant wherever they lurk. Then we will devour them. 

The America you grew up in is history. It has been clogged by zebra mussels and snuffed by snakeheads. It has been swallowed by Burmese pythons and smothered by kudzu. It has been swarmed by crazy ants.

Forget the notion of stable ecological communities that have existed in harmony for thousands of years; what we have now is an endless war zone where invasive insurgents go from building to building, routing the locals. Simply strolling down Bun’s driveway in the leafy Connecticut burbs the morning after our late-night crab-athon, Roman could point to all the slow-motion carnage. Dense mats of garlic mustard in the woods that drip chemicals into the soil to keep anything else from growing. “Invasive.” Clots of burdock along the roadside. “Invasive.” Dark ranks of knotweed infiltrating a stream bank. “Invasive.”

Not all introduced species become invasive. Most newcomers move into town, settle down, and become part of the fabric of the place. Apple trees, for example, originally from Kazakhstan, have been model citizens since they arrived with colonists four centuries ago. But of the 7,000 or so introduced species that have made a new life in the United States, about 1,000 are trashing the place at a rate that puts most of our other concerns to shame. Worrying about the impact that climate change may have on a region’s ecology while ignoring the work of invasive species is kind of like fretting over next year’s crops while Vikings torch the harbor. 

That’s because, with little if any natural predators or diseases, an invasive species has few checks on its reproductive rates, and it quickly goes about outcompeting the locals, if not directly consuming them. The result: the collapse of a local species, followed by the collapse of the natives that depended on that species, followed by ecological death spiral.

{%{"quote":"The America you grew up in is history. It has been clogged by zebra mussels and snuffed by snakeheads. it has been swallowed by Burmese pythons and smothered by kudzu. It has been swarmed by crazy ants."}%}

Exhibit A: Asian carp, imported from China in the 1970s by fish farmers in the South who hoped that the carp, which feed on algae, would help keep their ponds clean. The carp soon escaped into the Mississippi River Basin and now fill the Midwest’s rivers, where they sometimes comprise 90 percent of the biomass. These are the carp that weigh in at 50 pounds and jump ten feet out of the water when startled, whacking passing boaters upside the head like piscine two-by-fours. In 2014, the Army Corps of Engineers released its long-awaited master plan for keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes by severing all the arteries that connect the Mississippi River watershed to Lake Michigan. The price tag? Some $18.4 billion.

Exhibit B: the Burmese python, which first entered the Everglades in the 1980s or 1990s as escaped pets. Now as many as 150,000 of the snakes, which can grow to nearly 20 feet in length, inhabit Florida’s river of grass, and they have eaten 87.5 percent of the bobcats, 98.9 percent of the possums, 99.3 percent of the raccoons, and all the rabbits and foxes, as well as untold birds and alligators. A highly publicized 2013 python hunt, involving more than 1,000 participants, managed to net only 68 of the elusive apex predators.

Exhibit C: the lionfish, which Carl Safina, founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute, calls “the perfect invasive storm.” A native of the Indian Ocean that looks like it escaped from the cover of a Yes album, the lionfish is popular for aquariums. Dumped out of a few fish tanks into South Florida seas in the 1990s, it began showing up throughout the Caribbean in the 2000s. Bristling with poisonous spines, it has no local predators, and it can reproduce year-round, with the typical female producing one million eggs. 

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"Bun catches his breath after gathering mussels and seaweed from the bottom of a buoy."}%}

Most disastrous land invasion? Easy: Sus scrofa, the feral hog. The so-called pig bomb detonated in Texas in the 1980s after the Eurasian natives were stocked on game ranches, from which they quickly escaped and interbred with domestic pigs, but it has rippled out to 45 other states. Soon Alaska may be the only holdout. America is infested with at least five million wild hogs, half of them in Texas, which cause a good $1.5 billion in damages each year. Wild hogs uproot peanuts and other crops, destroy lawns, devour endangered species, spread diseases, and turn huge swaths of wetlands into eroding pigsties. They’ll eat corn, sugarcane, wheat, vegetables, snakes, lizards, frogs, turtles, muskrats, deer, goats, lambs, calves, and even feral piglets. They reproduce three times a year and have no natural predators. Texas “harvests” more than 750,000 hogs per year, but the population is still doubling every five years.

You get the idea. A decade ago, researchers estimated the annual cost of invasive species in America at $120 billion, which is more than the U.S. spends to maintain its roads. And that includes only measurable items—such as crop losses, the $1 billion municipalities spend each year to scrub zebra mussels out of their water pipes, and so on. Ecological costs are harder to quantify but staggering: nearly half the species on the U.S. threatened and endangered species lists were put there by invaders. Then there are simple quality-of-life considerations. Imagine the South without fire ants. That’s how it was until the 1930s, when the South American invader snuck into the port of Mobile, Alabama, on a cargo ship. Now they’ve been joined—in (where else?) Texas—by crazy ants, tiny invaders who swarm electronic components, wall sockets, and human skin by the millions.

Obviously, in a country that can’t find an extra billion to buy new bridges, the government is not going to fund the war on invaders. (President Clinton established the National Invasive Species Council in 1999, but it still seems to spend most of its energy debating the definition of invasive species. Its 2013 meeting was canceled.) Market-driven approaches hold more promise: put the critters on a plate and let them bankroll their own demise. After all, we have chomped our way through mammoths, moas, dodos, and every oyster in New York Harbor, and we are closing in on the last tuna and swordfish. Why not channel that appetite in a more productive direction?

My first training in the way of the invasivore came a few months before I met Bun, when I sat in a Boston restaurant watching New Hampshire chef Evan Mallett plate buttermilk-poached-dogfish salads. We were at the first Trash Fish Dinner, the start of a national series organized by Chefs Collaborative, a group of sustainability-minded chefs. The idea was to promote abundant fish that nobody eats, to take pressure off the familiar fare that’s running out. A month earlier, draconian cuts in cod quotas had been announced, a development that was expected to put many New England fishermen out of business. 

{%{"image":"","align":"right","size":"medium","caption":"Spider crab."}%}

“They’ve been hammered so many times,” Mallett told me. “I think we’re looking at an extinct industry.” Mallett is the chef and owner of the Black Trumpet Bistro in downtown Portsmouth. “I look out on a river that is the mouth of what both the natives and European settlers agreed was the prime fishing area,” he said. “And now there’s little there. It’s incredibly depressing.” So Mallett was pushing the spiny dogfish, a three-foot shark with a creepy Far Side grin that, while not technically invasive, has taken over the North Atlantic. When we overfished cod, dogfish rushed into the void. Trawlers fishing for cod now shred their nets on spiny dogfish instead. Unfortunately, the fish is virtually unsalable. (“Some sharks piss through their skin,” Mallett explained to me. “Seriously.”) But if gutted and bled immediately, he insisted, dogfish can be clean and delicious. 

Which it was—not even a hint of pee. Mallett nodded. “We did a dogfish po’boy last summer. If we put it in front of someone and they ate it, they loved it. But trying to talk someone into ordering the dogfish po’boy was an exercise in futility.”

{%{"quote":"Six years ago, Bun blew up his menu. “I ­started taking ingredients away,” he says. “First octo­pus, then sea urchin. Then the big stuff. When I told my waiters I was going to remove tuna, they started hyperventilating.”"}%}

Next to Mallett, Drew Hedlund, chef of the Fleet Landing Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, handed me a cup of lionfish ceviche with grapefruit, key lime juice, and candied citrus peel. “They’re all over the reefs. It’s alarming,” he said. “And they keep expanding northward. You’d think these fish would be getting smaller as they leave the warm tropical waters, but it’s the opposite. We seem to be getting much larger fish up north.” Because they live amid delicate reefs, lionfish must be speared or netted by hand. Leading the charge is an organization called REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation), which holds lionfish derbies throughout Florida and the Bahamas. Last September, REEF broke its previous record, with 100 divers collecting 707 lionfish off Key Largo. Dozens of restaurants in the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean now serve lionfish.


Invasivorism is not a new idea. In 1997, Louisiana tried to solve its nutria problem by ringing the dinner bell on the South American marsh rodents, which have been called “mammalian lawn mowers” because of their ability to eat grasses down to bare mud. Many parts of Louisiana are infested with as many as 6,000 nutria per square mile. The state spent $2 million encouraging people to eat nutria, but the campaign fizzled. Studies found that nutria was embraced only by individuals who already favored muskrat. 

But thanks to chefs, the invasivore movement has caught fire. Some of the worst invaders, like gypsy moths and Asian long-horned beetles, will not grace lunch counters anytime soon, yet where perniciousness meets deliciousness, there is hope.

The feral hog that plagues Texas, for example, is the same animal as the wild boar, the sacred cinghiale of Italian gastronomy. Now you can snack on local-boar chili in Houston or do a surf-and-turf of wild boar and invasive Asian tiger shrimp in Austin. In New Braunfels, Bubba’s Bacon Station—a subsidiary of Ortiz Game Management and Hog Removal of Texas (“If you have large territorial hogs that are taking over your yard or destroying crops WE CAN HELP!”)—buys or traps hogs, processes them under USDA inspection, and delivers them to the San Antonio Food Bank and other lucky clients. “They are an untapped, underused, available cuisine in ample supply in almost every county in Texas,” says Bubba Ortiz.

Asian carp, which now fill some Midwestern rivers at the unbelievable density of 13 tons per mile, could feed half of Chicago. The drawback? Their soft flesh and countless bones disgust people. (Bun Lai likens carp anatomy to “a hairbrush smeared with peanut butter.”) An effort to rebrand them as Kentucky tuna somehow failed to take off. Yet, at another Trash Fish Dinner, in Chicago last May, Paul Fehribach of the local Southern-cooking eatery Big Jones got raves for his crispy carp cakes. “Asian carp’s got really sweet meat,” he told me. “It reminds me so much of crab, but without the bottom-feeder funk, so I did it breaded and deep-fried in batter.” Now he’s working on carp fish sticks.

Yet the occasional trash-fish dinner is not going to change the status quo. It’s a fine token, a way of getting people engaged, but what the world needs is trash-fish diners—joints slinging invaders and bycatch every night. Chefs willing to put their whole menu where their mouth is. What the world needs is Bun Lai.

Six years ago, Bun blew up his menu. He didn’t want to feel bad anymore from putting foods like white rice and sugar in his body or anybody else’s. And he didn’t want to feel bad because he was serving the last bluefin on earth. He began to wonder if sushi could be used to heal bodies, communities, and oceans.

First, he swapped white rice for brown. “Then,” he says, “I started taking ingredients away. First octopus, then sea urchin. I knew that would be easy. I wasn’t killing it with sea urchin anyway. Then the big stuff started going. Unagi. That pissed people off. Then I did yellowtail. Then tuna in 2010. When I told my waiters I was going to remove tuna, they started hyperventilating. For them it can be really, really difficult to explain what we’re trying to do.”

{%{"image":"","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"Invasive-crab roll."}%}

In place of tuna, Bun offered sustainable options like the Water Pig Roll (applewood-smoked Connecticut mackerel, goat cheese, and cranberries) and the Kwanzaa Bonanzaa (a coconut-covered roll of fried Mississippi catfish, sweet potato, avocado, cream cheese, cantaloupe, burdock, and hot sauce). The sushi snobs savaged him online. (“This is not sushi. This is not sushi. This is not sushi.”) Many walked out after perusing the menu. Many newcomers still walk out, but after a wobbly decade that saw Miya’s flirt with bankruptcy, the restaurant has developed a loyal, even rabid, clientele who will follow Bun off any gastronomic cliff. They willingly made the leap into invasivorism. Five invasive species are now standard on his menu: the burdock in the Kwanzaa Bonanzaa roll; the seaweeds in the miso soup; the Asian shore crabs, fried and placed as if in mid-crawl on a pile of rolls and seaweeds meant to evoke the Connecticut shoreline; lionfish sashimi; and a notorious peanut-butter-and-jellyfish roll. (“Invasive cannonball jellyfish, trawled off the state of Georgia, is thin sliced and mixed with steamed invasive Australian rabbit and cucumber” and “seasoned with creamy roasted peanut butter.”)

For special occasions, Bun goes further, breaking out the Japanese knotweed lemonade and the hog sashimi, first freezing it to five degrees for 20 days to kill any trichinosis worms. Last June, he held a special cicada dinner to celebrate the superabundance of the 17-year insects. He originally planned to hold it at Miya’s. No, no, no, the health department said. So he moved it to his house and threw an open-invite party. About 50 people showed up, half of whom he didn’t know. He served hundreds of cicadas, marinated in lime and chili, smoked, then crisped in a dehydrator. Reactions were mixed. “The outside was satisfyingly crispy,” said one guest. “But as I bit into it, there was a pop/squish that was a little unexpected.” Another: “It was weird flossing wings out of your teeth.”

“They were a hit,” Bun insists. “If I had a bunch, I’d be snacking on them right now. But if I had a basketful of cicadas and was standing outside Starbucks, I don’t think I’d have gotten the same reception.”
When the sushi snobs tell Bun this is not sushi, this is not sushi, this is not sushi, he tells them that sushi must evolve. It must again involve a covenant with nature. He tells them you need to use what nature gives you.

Which is how I find myself floating beneath a red buoy in Long Island Sound the afternoon after our crab hunt, sucking on a snorkel and wondering what else might be lurking in the warm, pea green water. I’d asked Bun and Roman, just how far can invasivorism go? Show me that yoru can eat well in Connecticut off the invasive and underutilized, and I’ll believe that you can do it anywhere.

What nature is giving us at the moment is seaweed. Neon green wakame and creepy tendrils of something called dead man’s fingers, both invasive as hell, cover the bottom of the buoy, which is pumping up and down in the swells, and I’m trying to rip them off with one hand while holding my breath and stuffing them into a sack tied around my other wrist without getting cold-cocked by the buoy on the downbeat. And I’m worrying that interacting with the environment at the level of caloric intake is, at best, a zero-sum game, but Bun assures me our cooler will soon be brimming with wild, nutrient-dense calories.

{%{"quote":"We spoon out bowlfuls of soup swirling with green, brown, and red seaweeds, clacking with shells, and salted by the sea. There’s also a fair amount of grit and tunicate grinding between our molars, but hey, this is war."}%}

So I keep grabbing new breaths and diving back for more seaweed. Bun—who is wearing the longest flippers I’ve ever seen, comic-book flippers, really, instilling in me a deep sense of inferiority—has paddled over to a nearby rock in search of tunicates, which he has been threatening to serve me raw. Tunicates, also known as sea squirts, are gelatinous filter feeders that gum onto available surfaces by the thousands, smothering whatever is inside. Some are native to North America, but this particular Japanese variety, known alternately as carpet tunicate and marine vomit, has single-handedly destroyed the Nova Scotia mussel industry and threatens to do the same for other shellfish growers throughout the Northeast. Bun would love to serve them, but uncharacteristically, he has decided not to pursue tunicate cuisine. “They look like uncircumcised penises, and when you bite them they squirt in your mouth.”

“The tunicates were brutal,” Roman agrees, mumbling something about ammonium.

{%{"image":"","align":"right","size":"medium","caption":"A wrist sack of mussels."}%}

The rope attaching the buoy to the bottom is caked with seaweeds and mussels—not invasive, but abundant to the point of nuisance, which in Bun’s book counts—and the mussels are crusted in an orange slime of immature tunicates, so I suck some more air and follow the rope down, my mask pressed right up against it to see through the brown murk. Sure enough, they come off the rope easily, and soon my sack is filled with mussels and seaweeds.

Bun’s sack is bigger than mine, of course, and Roman has also done well. We kick over to Bun’s boat and offload our contents, and suddenly the cooler won’t even close. The shore crabs from last night use the mussels as scaffolding to make a break for it, skulking around the boat, hiding in corners and waiting for a change in their fortunes.

A vision of invasive miso soup begins to dance in our heads as the evening sun cracks like an egg along the northwest horizon and we pilot the Bunboat up the sound. We have seaweeds, we have shellfish, we have seawater, we just so happen to have a giant wok and a propane tank, and we have nowhere to be. But we need clams.

We steal into a cove rimmed by a 20-foot wall of rock on one side and Connecticut McMansions on the other. We tie up to somebody else’s mooring ball. At the bottom of the cove, Bun suspects, lurk quahogs (native but underutilized, at least by these Gatsbys). 

“How will I know?” I ask.

“Just dive to the bottom and feel around.”

“How deep is it?”

“Only one way to find out.”

Right. Pale white faces peek out of upper-story windows and gardeners pause in mid-rake to watch the frogmen deploy. I fill my lungs with air and kick straight for Hades, my hands reached out in front, down, down into darkness.

Just about the time the vise is closing on my temples and I’m wondering if I have enough air for the return trip, my hands plunge into mud and almost instantly close on what feel like smooth, fist-sized rocks. I grab as many as I can and kick hard for the surface and explode into air, clutching handfuls of glossy black Mercenaria mercenaria. Then Bun shoots up with even bigger ones, and the quahog hunt is on. We are rooting in the mud like manatees, filling our sacks with clams and gasping for air in between. Eventually, I struggle back to the boat with a sack that feels as if it is full of bowling balls.

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"Foraged miso soup."}%}

Half an hour later, we have commandeered an island of pink rock in the middle of the sound and chased the oystercatchers away. The burner under the wok is roaring like a jet engine, and shore crabs are dancing in dark sesame oil. Bun adds ginger, garlic, periwinkles, and dead man’s fingers and cooks it down into a mushy green marine bruschetta. The other seaweeds, clams, and tunicate-crusted mussels go into a separate wok with a little seawater and miso paste. Soon the tunicates slide off the shells and dissolve into an orange bisque, and suddenly we have New Haven miso soup.

As the color fades from the sky and the day’s heat radiates from the rock, we spoon out bowlfuls of soup swirling with green, brown, and red seaweeds, clacking with shells, and salted by the sea. There’s also a fair amount of the bottom of Long Island Sound in the soup, grit and tunicate grinding between our molars, but hey, this is war.

And I now feel that it’s a war we can win. Who could stop this Chinese-Japanese-American hero for our times, stirring a wok in his Hawaiian-print bathing suit and popping boiling crabs into his mouth? He and Roman have book projects in the works, online plans, speaking gigs, and I foresee a thousand invasivore clubs spreading across the land—not Miya’s exactly, more like Bun’s After Dark, an uprising of scrappy locals going all MMA on the invaders. Wherever the kingdom is threatened, we will be waiting with our chopsticks. For we are hungry. We are open-minded. And we are legion.

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The Scariest Tick Disease You Haven't Heard Of

There are plenty of reasons to fear ticks—Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, general aversion to blood suckers. Here's another one to add to the list: severe and sudden allergies to red meat.

In September, Norman was camping with her husband in Falls Creek Falls Tennessee. At 3 a.m., she woke up with hives. She and her husband drove five miles to get cell service, and the 911 operator they called told them to stay put. "By the time the ambulance got there my throat was pretty closed up, and I had hives completely," Norman says. "They told me I would not have made it if we had driven."

The cause of the reaction? A tick that had bitten her six weeks earlier and a steak she'd eaten for dinner that night.

Across the American Southeast, and in parts of Europe and Australia, doctors are treating patients with sudden, potentially fatal allergies to red meat that researchers believe are caused by bites from specific types of ticks. In the U.S., it's the Lone Star Tick.

"These bites are really common, especially in places where there are tons of these ticks, in the Southeast particularly," says Dr. Robert Valet, an assistant professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University. "The vast majority of people don't get this. But it is on the list of things that can come from tick bites."

Here's how researchers believe it works: When a Lone Star tick bites a person, it introduces something called alpha-gal sugar into the bite. Some bitten patients become allergic to the sugar, which is also found in red meat. For those patients, eating alpha-gal can cause hives, lip or tongue swelling, or anaphylaxis, a potentially deadly allergic reaction that can cause the throat to close or blood pressure to drop.

Symptoms tend to appear four to six hours after eating red meat, and sometimes even dairy, and reactions tend to occur weeks or even months after a patient was bitten.

"Within the Southeast…it's up there with peanut allergies and shellfish allergies," Valet says. About one percent of the patients who visit the Vanderbilt Asthma, Sinus and Allergy Clinic are coming in with the allergy. Dr. Platts-Mills, who lead the UVA study and has the allergy himself, told NPR that this particular tick is "very aggressive. Its larval forms will bite humans, whereas none of the other American tick larvae will do that."

If you're wondering why you've never heard of it, researchers at the University of Virginia published the first study linking ticks to the allergy in 2009. "We've really only been testing for it in the last couple of years," Valet says.

It's also fairly rare in comparison to other tick-borne disease like Lyme disease, which reports about 25,000 new cases a year; so far, UVA has recorded only about 1000 cases of the tick-related allergy.

But that doesn't mean there's no reason to be careful, particularly if you live or hike in areas of Tennessee, Virginia, or North Carolina, though Lone Star Ticks can be found as far north as Maine and as far West as Nebraska—and bit-related allergies have been reported in states like New York and .

There's also no cure. Beyond carrying an Epipen and trying to avoid ticks to begin with, there's not a lot you can do. Though some allergies do go away on their own, it's a safe bet that most people who get it won't be eating red meat again, and some like Norman—about 30 percent of those with the allergy—are also allergic to dairy. In severe cases, it can also cause an allergy to gelatin.

But this isn't the kind of disease you need to get tested for. "It's kind of one of those things that will happen and it will be obvious," Valet says.

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The Madness of Modern-Day Poaching

“He saved 50 rhinos. Be he's still a con man.” —Investigator, South African Revenue Service

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 knew she was coming here to work as a prostitute. That's in her statement.” —Investigator, South African Revenue Service

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." 

"Rademeyer is used to hanging out with unsavory characters." —Yolandi Groenewald, Reporter, Johannesburg City Press

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. 

“Johnny is mostly interested in money.” —Julian Rademeyer, Investigative Reporter

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.

Johnny visited game farms with Peter, marveling at his colleague’s dexterity with lion bones. Peter could empty a bag on the floor and arrange the entire skeleton in ten minutes. For a good six-to-eight-pound set, Peter would pay the farmer $1,000, maybe $1,500 with the skull and paws. Teeth and claws were especially valuable—although Johnny wasn’t sure why—and there was an urgency to get them to Laos faster than the five days their regular bone shipments took to arrive. So Peter gave the teeth and claws to K.K. at Thai Airways, who slipped them to the flight crew, who delivered them to Chai’s guy in the Bangkok airport. It took less than 24 hours. Transporting them this way wasn’t exactly legal, but the rest of it was. The bones had CITES permits and everything.

{%{"image":"", "caption":"Scenes from a modern-day poaching scheme.", "align":"right","size":"medium"}%}

When they weren’t working, Chai insisted on going to the casino. For someone who loved money, Chai hated handling it. Peter followed him everywhere with a black shoulder bag emblazoned with the words Bad Boy. That thing was stuffed with cash. Peter was a sonofabitch about it. Nobody got near that bag. Chai would pick a slot machine, ask Peter for up to $5,000, then get completely absorbed. Peter would get bored and start casing the floor for hookers. He had a thing for the black ladies. He’d book a room with a couple of them, and sometimes the other guys joined in. It was all done with Chai’s money, but he didn’t mind.

Johnny liked Chai. He wasn’t rowdy like Peter. He rarely lost his temper. And he was generous. He always bought clothes for the guys, whatever they wanted. On Chai’s birthday, he insisted Johnny drive him to a poor neighborhood to give money to beggars. Chai said that’s what you do in Thailand on your birthday. Of course, it also gave him a chance to show off. That was Chai. He made sure everyone knew about his seven Rolexes, about his extensive handgun collection. He photographed or videotaped every transaction he made, downloading the images on his Sony laptop. Then he could show friends back in Bangkok how large he was living. 

When the guys needed a new place to stay, Johnny found them a house in Edenvale not far from the casino, a four-bedroom with a garden out back and a big kitchen for Peter to cook all the crazy shit Peter cooked. Chai spared no expense on furnishings—giant Samsung flatscreen, surround sound, karaoke machine, leather lounge suite. He insisted Johnny live with them. Johnny figured what the hell. 

Life was good. They were making steady money. But in the late summer of 2010, they started looking into a loophole in South Africa’s conservation system that was too good to be true. Apparently, with the right permits and documentation, rhino hunting was legal in South Africa. They had Johnny research it. There were rules, of course. A person could shoot only one rhino a year, for example. But you could export the trophy—the mounted horn—to your home country. Chai was ecstatic. South Africa’s hunting laws allowed him to ship rhino horns out of the country? Legally? He’d need to find a lot of hunters, but that wouldn’t be a problem. He threw a party to celebrate. 

“The more I dug, the more horrified I became.” —Julian Rademeyer

The scheme Chai envisioned was nothing new. As Rademeyer investigated South Africa’s rhino-poaching crisis, he found that several Vietnamese criminal syndicates had previously exploited the country’s hunting laws to traffic horns to Asia. To understand how they did it, one had to understand the controversial role that hunting played in South African wildlife conservation. 

South Africa and Swaziland are the only countries in the world that allow hunting white rhinos (hunting of the more endangered black rhinos is allowed only in Namibia), and while environmentalists decry the practice as a colonial relic, advocates view it as critically important. National parks and private game farms auction off excess rhinos—older bulls, for example—to other game farmers, some of whom sell hunting safaris. Those farmers reinvest profits into more land and rhinos, which expands the animals’ range. Ever since the country resumed legalized white rhino hunting in 1968, the population had increased tenfold to 18,910. CITES allows the export and import of personal "sport hunted" trophies, calling it noncommercial trade. A hunter is allowed to kill one rhino per year, and the industry typically markets the animal as one of the iconic Big Five—along with the elephant, lion, cape buffalo, and leopard—that hunters can legally bag in South Africa. 

But Rademeyer noted something curious in the historical record. From 2003 through 2009, most hunting permits didn’t go to the usual deep-pocketed Hemingway types from America and Europe. Instead, the permits went to applicants from Vietnam, a country with no tradition of big-game hunting. And these "hunters" hardly seemed wealthy. They came from crowded Hanoi tenements and hard-scrabble villages. During this seven-year period, they "hunted" at least 329 rhinos, resulting in 658 horns (two per rhino) being "legally" exported to Southeast Asia. 

These weren’t hunts at all but pseudohunts, staged by Vietnamese wildlife traffickers who flew in Southeast Asian peasants to pose as hunters. Far from being showcased on living-room walls, those 658 rhino horns landed in Vietnam’s medicinal black market, fetching $200 million to $300 million. This was an open secret in South -Africa’s hunting industry. Usually, the rhinos were killed not by the permitted hunters—who’d typically never fired a gun before—but by the South African "professional hunter" required by law to accompany safaris and allowed to dispatch only wounded animals.

{%{"image":"", "caption":"Harry Claasens with Punpitak "Peter" Chunchom.", "align":"left","size":"medium"}%}

By transforming a conservation tool into a smuggling pipeline, Rademeyer figured, these Vietnamese gangs had sinned twice. First, they’d bagged 329 rhinos, which may or may not have been killed in legal hunts. Second, those initial pseudohunts fed early demand for horn and expanded the market in Vietnam. By 2008, rhino poaching had exploded to feed that market. As much as anything, pseudohunting had sparked South Africa’s raging poaching crisis. 

And yet, those fraudulent hunts went unpunished. So Chai, it seemed, had nothing to fear when he decided to stage a few himself.

“The crisis has attracted every scumbag imaginable to South Africa.” —Pelham Jones, Chairman, South African Private Rhino Owners Association.

Toward the summer of 2010, a safari operator Johnny knew offered to facilitate a hunt. For roughly $140,000, he could procure two rhinos and relocate them to North West province, where obtaining hunting permits was easy. Peter and the guys went to the casino to tap a couple of ATMs. With the security there, they wouldn’t be robbed. They drew and drew, $275 a pop, using Chai’s card with unlimited withdrawals. They had so much cash they had to stuff much of it down their pants. Finally, more than 500 withdrawals later, a message appeared: "Out of commission." They’d sucked the machines dry. They walked out like stiff-legged cowboys. 

In September, Peter and another of the Thais went hunting, and afterward a taxidermist mounted the horns on decorative shields. (CITES issued permits only for proper hunting trophies.) Then Chai shipped them to Bangkok. It was easy. 

The guys soon lost interest in lion bones. Rhino horns meant exponentially bigger money. They were getting greedy, Johnny thought. His parents hadn’t raised him that way. But these guys? Hell, one day Chai announced that he wanted a Hummer. It was late Saturday afternoon, and the dealerships were closed. But Chai wanted it now. Johnny called around and found a dealer who’d open for someone paying cash. They hit the casino ATMs again, and that evening they dumped a pile of money on the dealer’s desk. It took him 40 minutes to count it. Naturally, Chai videotaped the whole thing. Then he drove home in a silver H3 and called all his friends over. 

A game farmer they’d bought lion bones from, Marnus Steyl, could arrange as many rhino hunts as they wanted. Since a hunter could shoot only one rhino a year, they would need hunters. Lots of hunters. Southeast Asian hunters.

Chai knew where to find them. 

“Even if she knew she was coming for sex work, it doesn't matter. If there was deception, or if she was held against her will, that's human trafficking.” —Loren Landau, Director, African Center for Migration and Society.

For a week after her arrival in South Africa, in the fall of 2010, Joy did nothing. On the eighth day, Mau said, "You make pam-pam with the farang." Then she delivered Joy to the Flamingo Club in Pretoria. 

It was 2 P.M. Her eyes needed a few seconds to adjust. The place was dark and cavernous, with thumping music. There was a stage. Naked women gyrated and spun around poles. She saw a man in an overstuffed chair leaning back, with a woman grinding against him. 

She found the bar. She didn’t speak English, but she pointed, and the bartender served her a hard cider, Savanna Dry. She drank without looking up. She ordered another. Then another. She wasn’t going to make pam-pam with anyone. Leaving Thailand had been a terrible mistake. How could she approach the police about this? 

Mau returned 12 hours later. She was furious. Joy had booked no men. "You are so fucking ugly. None of the farang wanted you." 

Mau hauled her to the Flamingo twice more, with similar results. She drank Savanna Dry and tried to talk Mau’s other girls into joining her at the bar rather than working. When Mau caught wind of this she went ballistic. Joy was bad for business, she said. Mau picked up the phone and dialed a man named Anthony. They negotiated a price, and soon Anthony was at the front door. He was young, tall, and good-looking. Compared with Mau he seemed nice. But how nice could he be? He’d just purchased Joy for $1,800.

Anthony drove her to a small two-bedroom townhouse, where at least half a dozen other Thai women were staying. After a couple of days, Joy was dropped off at a club in Krugersdorp, a mining area in the western suburbs. It was filthy, and the place terrified her. She spent the entire evening in the garden outside. 

Her new pimp was not pleased.

Two days later, she was driven back to Mau’s place, where she received some bewildering news. "Tomorrow," Mau said, "you will go rhino hunting." 

“Johnny knew he was involved with illegal activity, that he was facilitating it.” —Paul O'Sullivan, Private Forensics Investigator

Two Thai men arrived at Mau’s at 6 a.m. Joy was still wondering about the rhino hunting—wouldn’t the gun be bigger than her?—when Mau instructed her to do anything these men requested. Anything. Joy and three other Thai women climbed into a couple of vehicles, one driven by an older farang.

It was November 2010. 

As he drove, Johnny contemplated how sweet the girls had it. They were basically being paid 5,000 rand ($440) each to go on holiday at Marnus Steyl’s farm in North West province. Mau had already provided Chai with their passports to secure the hunting and CITES permits. Now, beyond posing with dead rhinos for the CITES-required photos, the girls were free to sun themselves by the pool and sip cocktails. And when he turned into the local police station so the girls could be fingerprinted—another hunting requirement—Johnny was further comforted with how legal all this was. 

At the guesthouse, the poolside barbecuing and drinking began in earnest. Johnny noticed immediately that Joy stood off by herself. Joy noticed he was the only one not drinking. He wondered why she seemed sad. She wondered why he seemed less threatening than the Thai men. Hello. Hi. I’m John. Joy. Nice to meet you. You speak Thai? Yes. Hmm. Something wrong? She burst into tears. He looked to see if anyone noticed. She explained her situation. He listened attentively. Could he help her? He didn’t know how to help. The tears continued. OK, he said. OK.'

Peter noticed them talking and later pulled her aside. "Johnny can’t help you," he said, laughing. "He has no money." But that evening, as the women were divvied up —they were still on the job, as far as Peter was concerned—Johnny spoke up forcefully. "Not Joy. She’s with me." 

The next morning they spent out in the bush, lounging in the back of a pickup, looking more like shoppers than big-game hunters. The girls wore T-shirts and shorts. Johnny had on Crocs. They fanned themselves in the blistering heat and nibbled sandwiches. Somewhere across the scrub landscape, Steyl, the game farmer, and Harry Claassens, a licensed professional hunter, were stalking rhinos. Legally, Claassens was allowed to shoot only if the permitted hunter wounded the animal. In this case, the permitted hunters were drinking sodas and were nowhere near any rhinos when shots rang out. Then Steyl’s voice came over the radio with instructions on where to find them. 

The sight of the dead rhino splayed in the red dirt shocked Joy. It was bigger than a car. But a couple of the girls laughed, and Chai was giddy. He handed Joy a rifle, told her to stand next to the animal. She could hardly lift the gun. She and the rhino stared blankly as they clicked the photo. Then Steyl’s farmhands worked a long, thin knife around the base of the horn until it popped off, sounding like chicken bones snapping apart at the joint. 

Over four days they bagged four rhinos. Chai paid Steyl by horn weight, 60,000 rand a kilo. With the rhinos producing about four kilos a piece, Steyl pocketed more than $140,000. The horns would sell for eight times that in Southeast Asia. 

Afterward, Joy stayed with Johnny and the guys at the Edenvale house for two days. Mau called in a spitting fury, warning that if Joy didn’t return, there’d be consequences. Johnny returned her. Mau took Joy’s 5,000 rand for the hunt and sent her back to Anthony. 

Two nights later, when she was taken to an underground brothel, a man tried to coax her into a room. They argued. The owner got involved. She ran outside and called Johnny. He had to come, now! This was dicey territory, Johnny thought. But he got in his car, found her, and brought her home. 

The next day, he informed Mau that Joy wasn’t returning. Mau said it was Anthony’s problem, he owned her now. So Johnny called Anthony.

"Anthony, Joy is with me. I believe you bought her."

"Yeah, she’s mine."

"She doesn’t want to be with you."

"Is that a fact?"


"You gotta pay me then."

"What for?"

"What for?"


"You’re gonna pay me 18,000 rand."

Maybe they’d crossed paths for a reason, Johnny thought. Maybe he was meant to help her. He had the money from all the lion bones. He devised a contract saying the payment released Joy of all debts, that nobody owned her, that she could live as she pleased. The pimp signed it and returned her passport. 

Joy was free. 

“Johnny's a wheeler-dealer, always hatching schemes that never really work out.” —Julian Rademeyer

In November 2010, Joy moved in with Johnny at the Edenvale house. Where else could she go? She had no resources. And while she missed her son in Thailand, she had no opportunities there. As for Johnny, look, he was happily married. He had a wonderful wife in Durban. But helping Joy was the Christian thing to do. 

She moved in as Chai was ramping up the rhino hunts. Everyone had a role. Peter began trolling Joburg’s strip joints and brothels for Thai passports. He’d leave the house at 7 P.M. and be back by nine with half a dozen. It was an easy sell, Johnny thought. Free food and drink for a weekend and the equivalent of three months’ salary in Thailand? Johnny scanned the passports—he made $100 per rhino—and forwarded the information to Steyl, who applied for the hunting permits and acquired the rhinos. Steyl could practically steal the animals at auction, what with the poaching crisis escalating and farmers unloading rhinos left and right. After moving them to his farm, he’d signal that it was time to hunt. Peter typically accompanied the hunting parties, while Chai traveled between Bangkok and Joburg, monitoring the horn shipments. 

Hovering over all this, virtually, was a mysterious man named Vixay Keosavang. Johnny knew nothing about him except that he lived in Laos and operated Xaysavang Trading Export-Import Company. He’d never been to South Africa. During long video chats, he and Chai spoke rapidly in Thai and Lao, and Johnny couldn’t follow. One time, Chai called Johnny over to meet the big boss. The middle-aged man on the screen greeted him, but that was the extent of their interaction.

Unfortunately, Johnny dealt mostly with Steyl and Peter. In addition to breeding lions and conducting safaris, Steyl, 39, raised show horses and had business interests in Dubai. This apparently made him too good to call Johnny "Uncle," a common practice among Afrikaners when addressing an older man. He usually ignored Johnny altogether, arrogant bastard. 

Peter, meanwhile, was becoming more erratic by the day. He’d developed insatiable cravings for one of Mau’s girls, and one night he got wasted, jumped into the Hummer, and went looking for her. He shanghaied Joy to navigate. He swerved the wrong way down one-way streets and monster-trucked his way across town doing over 100 miles per hour. When a cop pulled him over, Peter shoved $600 at him from the Bad Boy bag. He later bragged that you could do anything in South Africa for a price. 

Another time, Johnny found him with the guys in the backyard huddled around a gray blob the size of a barber pole. It was a rhino penis. They wanted to make jerky. One of them held back the foreskin while the others hacked away at the pink member with knives. They built a fire right there, charred the individual pieces, and laid them in the sun to dry. Clouds of flies soon descended, along with an overpowering stench. The landlady complained, and Peter ended up burying the whole mess in the garden. 

The situation deteriorated from there. 

By spring of 2011, Johnny and Joy had learned to flee whenever Peter hosted a party. One morning, returning from the quiet shelter of a hotel, they found the yard littered with bottles and condoms. The landlady was homicidal. She lived next door, and the all-night karaoke and shrieking prostitutes had shell-shocked her grandkids. Johnny confronted Peter, who was still clutching a glass of wine. Having spent time in Thailand, he knew these guys grew up with Thai boxing. He’d studied it a bit himself. So when Peter grabbed his shirt, he predicted the sonofabitch would come with a right knee to his crotch. But Johnny delivered a vicious head butt that laid Peter out and opened a deep gash across his nose. When two of the other Thais moved toward Johnny, Joy grabbed a kitchen knife and jabbed it at them. "You touch John I’ll kill you!" she screamed. Then, with Peter bloodied and groaning, she couldn’t resist a little smack talk. "You think you’re Superman? Why don’t you take this knife and John takes a knife, and we’ll see who wins?"

In three days the Thais moved out, leaving the house to Joy and Johnny. 

“He was motivated by several things. The fight with Peter. They owed him money. But I think that order for 50 rhinos affected him.” —Julian Rademeyer

"Why do you hurt my people?" Chai asked Johnny over the phone from Bangkok. "We are family. We must work as a family." It was self-defense! Peter attacked him. But Chai sent Johnny what amounted to a contract stating that he would have to abide by Chai’s rules. 

That wasn’t the only troubling document from Chai. He’d recently sent Johnny something to forward to Steyl, an order for 50 rhinos. It explained that Xaysavang Trading was prepared to shoot 15 rhinos a month for the next several months. Steyl would be paid by horn weight, 65,000 rand ($9,700) a kilo. Steyl had complained that the girl hunters would attract attention and that male hunters should be flown in from Thailand. The order suggested that those hunters had already been lined up. Assuming four kilos of horn per rhino, Steyl stood to make nearly $2 million. 


Jesus, that was a lot of rhinos. Was that really hunting? Had it ever been? If Johnny was fuzzy about the morality of their previous activities, he wasn’t fuzzy about this. Fifty rhinos was harvesting, not hunting. It wasn’t right. 

But what could he do about it? Chai had unlimited funds to bribe the police. Johnny was mulling this over one day in early 2011 when he bumped into an acquaintance at McDonald’s. They started talking. By total chance, Johnny’s acquaintance was an informant for a private forensics investigator named Paul O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan had extensive contacts in Joburg’s underworld and a reputation as a Lone Ranger–style crime fighter. Johnny knew about his exploits from the news, as did most South Africans. He’d been the driving force behind some significant takedowns, most notably the country’s corrupt former national police commissioner.

Johnny told the informant everything.

A few months later, on May 11, he repeated it all to O’Sullivan, giving up names, dates, phone numbers, and addresses. The order for 50 rhinos was especially damning. If it stuck, Chai would become the highest-level operative nabbed for wildlife trafficking in recent African history. Johnny urged O’Sullivan to confiscate Chai’s laptop. The entire case was right there. Chai recorded everything. 

O’Sullivan delivered Johnny’s statement and supporting documents to both the police and the South African Revenue Service. SARS took an immediate interest. On June 13, investigators arrested Peter at his new residence for unpermitted possession of lion parts. That same day, they confronted Chai at the airport, where he’d just arrived from Bangkok with five men permitted to hunt rhinos. They confiscated his laptop and released him. Two weeks later, Peter was convicted for violating South Africa’s Biodiversity Act and deported. In July, SARS arrested Chai after the rhino hunt, charging him with fraud, customs violations, and illegally trading in rhino horns. Investigators had found hundreds of e-mails, hunting permits, receipts, and videos on his laptop. Johnny’s story was true. He and Joy would get immunity, but they would have to testify against Chai. They’d also have to vacate their house immediately. 

“When the heat's on, he rats out his mates to save his skin. People were not happy with him.” —Paul O'Sullivan

Soon after moving into their new place, a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Edenvale, they heard the news: Chai put out a 100,000 rand ($15,000) bounty on them. Johnny remembered a party months earlier when Chai had photographed everyone in the room. He then announced that if anyone snitched, their photo would be circulated among people who deal with snitches. 

The cops reassured them. Joy and Johnny needed to hunker down. Go to work, come home, that’s it. But then the photographs began arriving on Facebook. One series was of a woman Johnny recognized as Chai’s girlfriend. The first photo showed her holding a kitten. In the second photo, one of her stiletto heels was jammed through the kitten’s eye socket. The final image showed the animal stomped flat as a tabletop. Another series depicted a man and a woman being hanged. Yet another showed a beheading. The last photos were of a girl in a bathtub with her throat slashed, blood splattered everywhere. 

The cops told Johnny to stay offline. 

It felt like the walls were closing in. The trial was repeatedly postponed, and weeks turned into months, months into a year. At least Johnny could still go to his auto-parts job. Joy felt like she was in jail. She hadn’t seen her son in two years. When the authorities denied yet another request to leave the country, she called Johnny one day and screamed, "I will kill myself!" He raced home to find her holding a knife, her wrists bleeding. But the wounds were superficial. 

He tried to alleviate the pressure. He bought her a karaoke machine with Thai lyrics. He got her Thai magazines and romance novels. They adopted a wiener dog. She tried to think outside herself. She cooked Johnny elaborate Thai meals. She placed water before her Buddha statue to quench his thirst, and she fed the spirits of their apartment, leaving them meals outside with burning incense. Still, it was hard not to be constantly terrified. Johnny was once followed most of the way home from work, the mystery car peeling off only after he called the police. Joy regularly reported suspicious cars on their street. 

As another trial date approached, in the fall of 2012, Joy received a text message from someone claiming to be a cop. "We’ve got documents for you," it said. "Please provide us your address." The police told them to ignore it. But the messages continued, along with threatening phone calls. "We’re closing in on you," a voice said. "You’ll never see the inside of a courtroom."

“What Julian did was absolutely critical.” —Investigator, South African Revenue Service

On November 5, 2012, Rademeyer arrived at Kempton Park Regional Courthouse in Joburg to find what had become common at rhino-poaching trials: protesters raising hell. It had been more than a year since he’d broken the story of Chai’s pseudohunts, and now he had completed a book about the rhino-hunting crisis, Killing for Profit. Outside the courtroom, the public wanted justice. Amid the inflatable rhinos and photos of grisly dehornings were signs showing Chai’s image in crosshairs. Rhinos had become a middle-class cause célèbre in South Africa, what with poaching exploding and the authorities floundering. Experts predicted that by 2015, poaching deaths would outnumber births. 

Inside, Rademeyer saw the whole motley bunch standing in the dock. Chai had initially pled guilty in hopes of being fined and deported, but he later withdrew the plea. Peter had returned to South Africa to pursue smuggling deals, but officials promptly rearrested him. Steyl turned himself in shortly after that, and then Harry Claassens, the professional hunter, was arrested at his farm. Rademeyer also saw Johnny sitting in the hallway. He looked terrified. 

Rademeyer couldn’t blame him. As he’d discovered while reporting on the gang’s rhino scheme, Johnny had been working for the Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking, Vixay Keosavang. Rademeyer had traveled to Laos and learned that the kingpin was moving tons of live animals and animal parts around the world, including rhino horns, elephant ivory, lion bones, and scaly anteaters. He was emptying forests of wildlife. A single sales contract in 2009 showed that he’d supplied a Vietnamese company with 40,000 rat snakes, 30,000 cobras, 20,000 water monitors, and 20,000 endangered yellow-headed temple turtles. Keosavang had held political office in Laos, and in 2004 he’d accompanied the future prime minister on an official trip to Vietnam. He was untouchable. (In November 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a $1 million reward for information leading to the dismantling of Keosavang’s global smuggling network, which the State Department called "one of the most prolific international wildlife trafficking syndicates in operation.")

Rademeyer didn’t know what to expect from this trial. Few poachers had faced serious consequences since the crisis began in 2008. Initially, arrests were rare, and judges mostly issued fines or suspended sentences; only a few underlings, mostly black, had done prison time. But this case had received extensive media coverage, and the government couldn’t ignore it. Chai and his crew had killed at least 30 rhinos, and had Johnny not blown the whistle, they would have killed at least 50 more. After their arrests, officials had changed big-game hunting regulations and sharply curtailed pseudohunting, but rhino poaching in its more traditional form continued unabated. South Africa needed a big win in court. 

The verdict surprised everyone. The good news: Chai unexpectedly pled guilty. He claimed that Steyl and Claassens knew nothing of the fake hunts, and he begged for mercy. The judge gave none. He sentenced Chai to 40 years in prison. The bad news: prosecutors let everyone else walk free.

{%{"image":"", "caption":"Chai pleads guilty in 2012.", "align":"right","size":"medium"}%}

Whoa. Forty years for Chai was fantastic, Rademeyer thought. But Steyl walks? Seriously? The idea that Steyl knew nothing about the fake hunts was a joke. The most damning proof was a video clip of a hunt from January 2011. Rademeyer had acquired a copy. It showed Chai and Peter walking through the scrub with Steyl and Claassens. They spot a slumbering rhino. Steyl fires his rifle. The rhino screams. Steyl shoots again, but the animal struggles to its feet. Steyl’s third shot is followed by one from Claassens. As they approach, the rhino is still whimpering. Steyl pumps a fifth bullet into it. Chai laughs. Trailing the party is another Thai man, the permitted hunter. He never touches a weapon, even though legally he’s the only one allowed to shoot a rhino.

In the scrum after the trial, Rademeyer overheard someone ask the prosecutor about the literal smoking-gun video. "What video?" he said. What video? Rademeyer thought. It was the most compelling piece of evidence. The prosecutor hadn’t bothered watching it? Are you kidding?

South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority never explained why the video went unwatched or why it agreed to Steyl’s release. Maybe prosecutors felt that the customs aspect of the case was more worthy than the hunting aspect. Maybe they felt that getting Chai was enough. Or maybe they were just incompetent. Whatever the case, Rademeyer was furious. If prosecutors weren’t interested in the video, fine. The South African public would be. 

In the days that followed, television news programs showed the footage of the illegal hunt, with Rademeyer providing commentary. The video was heavily tweeted, and public reaction was swift. "Cut Steyl’s horn off!" one respondent wrote. Others suggested merely killing him. In Parliament, justice officials were thoroughly grilled. 

Three weeks later, succumbing to public pressure, authorities re-arrested Steyl. 

On one of the news programs that showed the video, Rademeyer had talked Johnny into being interviewed. Johnny was still plenty scared, but he wanted to help. With his face and voice altered, he spoke at length. Near the end, the host pressed him on whether blowing the whistle had been worth it, given the death threats and his cloistered existence for 16 months. Johnny paused. He then collapsed into heaving, remorseful sobs, unable to speak. Yes, he managed, finally. He said it was probably the greatest thing he’d ever done. 

“He'd been involved in an ugly thing, and maybe he wasn't fully truthful. But basically Johnny's a good person.” —Julian Rademeyer

Since the trial ended in November 2012, life has been easier. Johnny can come and go without fear. Chai is in prison. (His sentence was reduced to 30 years.) Mau, under pressure, fled back to Thailand. Peter eluded arrest and somehow slipped out of the country, too, even though authorities still have his passport. As for Steyl, Johnny is prepared to testify against that bastard, if they ever try him. The trial has been postponed several times, but prosecutors insist that they’re pressing ahead. Claassens has apparently agreed to testify against Steyl, too. 

Joy, before visiting Thailand to see her son, scrawled a warning in permanent black marker across Johnny’s living-room wall: "No have lady come in home. If come, bad for Johnny." What a jokester! Look, Johnny is happily married. Sure, Joy has since returned to Joburg a couple of times, and yes, she stays at his place. But someone has to help her, don’t they? She wants to open a little Thai restaurant in Joburg. Or maybe a hair salon. He’s simply helping her with her visa. 

Johnny still works for the auto-parts business, and he follows news of the poaching crisis when he can, in the papers, on TV. It’s getting worse. In 2013, 1,004 rhinos were poached, the highest annual toll ever. Apparently, the government is so desperate to stop poaching, it is now proposing legalizing the horn trade. A rhino horn is made of keratin, same as human fingernails. You cut it off, it grows right back. Some farmers are already dehorning their rhinos to deter poachers. It’s strange, the thought of harvesting and selling rhino horns the way you might harvest and sell, say, corn. But South Africa is bringing the idea to the next CITES conference in 2016. 

Johnny hopes there will still be rhinos around for his grandchildren to see. But the way things are going, it’s hard to predict. People are just so greedy. So damn greedy.

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Battling for Bison on Public Land

Everyone knows (uh, right?) that bison used to be ubiquitous across much of what became the United States, especially in the plains, and that European settlers set off a massive annihilation of the ungulates. Estimates of the number of North American bison, pre-colonization, range from 30 to 50 million. By the start of the 20th century, some estimates put the total number at around 1,000.

If you've been to Yellowstone or any park or preserve containing a "conservation" herd of bison, you know that we've managed to pull bison back from the brink. If you've eaten a bison burger, perhaps this is even more obvious. 

What saving bison means and does not mean, however, is a hotly debated topic because the goals of wildlife conservationists and those of commercial bison and cattle ranchers are at odds. The former wants wild herds to roam freely over wide swaths of public land. The latter already uses much of that land and worries that bison will compete for forage with its livestock. 

There are other issues, too, such as concern that brucellosis, a bacterial infection present in some wild bison herds, will be transferred to domestic cattle and bison herds if the wild bison roam wide and, well, free. Plus, private land-owners worry wild bison will trample their fences to get at hay or water during drought. Bison ranchers who graze their stock on public land worry about this, too, because what is to keep a landowner from shooting a bison he finds on his land and assumes it's wildlife rather than livestock? 

Montana is ground zero for this emerging range war because many Yellowstone bison carry Brucella (the bacteria that causes brucellosis) and move down from the highlands during the winter, toward grazing lands outside the park. The Park Service has been wrangling with the livestock industry for decades over this issue and worked out a sort of compromise that allows for some bison to roam into rangeland outside the park as long as they are ushered back into the park after winter. Nevermind that no one has documented any cases of cattle contracting brucellosis from bison outside of experiments in which the two animals were closely penned together. Montana ranchers go to lengths to keep brucellosis-free stock, which can be shipped out of state without costly testing.

A newly-released report by the Department of Agriculture shows that Brucella can be reliably removed from Yellowstone bison, through quarantine and treatment. This, in theory, should allay the livestock industry's concern around the disease. It seems it will do little, however, to quell the larger battles—which exist not just between wildlife folk and livestock folk, but also between bison ranchers and wild bison advocates.

Much of that contention is around the wild bison genome. A long history of cross-breeding with cattle means that only a small percentage (the American Prairie Preserve estimates 1.5 percent) of bison alive today are truly not hybrids. And the wild genome is being degraded, wildlife advocates argue, by bison ranchers using artificial selection to encourage certain traits.

"Evolutionary natural selection is what produced wild bison. Evolution has not ended, and natural selection is necessary to maintain the characteristics of wild bison, over the long haul," says James Bailey, a retired professor of wildlife biology at Colorado State University and author of American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. "We don't leave bison to future generations of Americans. We leave the bison genome."

Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, a trade group that promotes bison ranching, argues that one can't make blanket statements about ranchers monkeying with bison genes. "A lot of ranchers have bulls and cows in pastures and they sort it out in the rut. It's all romance in the pasture," he says.

Carter notes that some of the larger producers, such as Ted Turner and Dunham Ranch, do manage herds for specific traits. Still, he says, bison ranches do not artificially inseminate their stock, do not use growth hormones, and use antibiotics only to treat illness. "Bison producers in Montana have worked hard to demonstrate that they are good neighbors with the cattle business," he added. 

Bailey pulls no punches when it comes to the influence livestock industry has on wildlife conservation efforts. "The ag industry does a good job of promoting themselves as the last real Americans and all that," he says. "[As if] they're the only people with family values and that kind of stuff. Then there's the Marlboro man.

"I don’t think the livestock industry should be controlling our public lands to the extend that we have privately-owned cattle on almost all of our public lands and public bison on none of them [outside of special herds in national parks and forests]."

The Nature Conservancy and the American Prairie Preserve both support wild bison herds on their respective conservation landscapes. And the National Wildlife Federation is working to restore bison to Montana's 1.1-million-acre Charles M. Russell (CMR) National Wildlife Refuge, as part of a larger program to address wildlife-livestock conflicts and restore the prairie grasslands to their natural state. A major tenant of this program is an "Adopt a Wildlife Acre" fundraising campaign, in which NWF uses donations to offer ranchers a fair price in exchange for their agreement to retire their public land grazing leases.

"The Wildlife Refuge is supposed to be for wildlife, but we are leasing it out for cows," says Bailey. "So the National Wildlife Federation is using public funds to pay [ranchers] not to graze our land. It doesn't make much sense but that's been a pretty common thing around the country."

So, aside from working to restore wild bison in pockets around the West, what can be done? Without a significant percentage of Americans giving up beef and therefore reducing demand for livestock grazing, there's no clear answer. Bailey says two attempts to gain federal protection for wild bison through the Endangered Species Act, failed.

"Around 2009 I submitted a proposal to list bison in the U.S. as a threatened species, but the meager response I got from the Fish and Wildlife Service, in my opinion, should be an embarrassment to the Fish and Wildlife Service," he says.

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