The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Politics

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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Down Is Becoming Too Expensive

Want proof that the world is flat? Consider this: how much you pay for your next jacket or sleeping bag could depend on whether 1.4 billion Chinese order Peking duck. China produces roughly 70 percent of the world's down, a by-product of the estimated three million tons of ducks and geese its population consumes each year. But China is ­rapidly urbanizing, and the burgeoning middle class is eating more beef and less fowl. Combine that with panic over recent bird-flu outbreaks and growing demand in the West for jackets, sleeping bags, and comforters, and the result is a massive spike in down prices. In 2009, a pound sold for $10; today it goes for $50.

In the U.S., higher materials costs are driving up prices on store shelves, where down jackets and sleeping bags now sell for about 30 percent more than they did five years ago. That has some manufacturers ramping up R&D to devise man-made fibers that can match down's exceptional warmth-to-weight ratio. Indeed, synthetics are undergoing a massive technological upgrade. "On a scale of one to ten, we're at five in terms of potential," says Joe Vernachio, vice president of global apparel and equipment at the North Face. "We'll be ­having sixes and sevens soon," he says. And a nine or ten? "It's out there," Vernachio says, "but we haven't seen it yet." Here's a rundown of the current crop of next-gen insulation.

Primaloft ThermoBall

What It Is: Clusters of tiny balls of synthetic fiber designed to mimic the loft and compressibility of feathers.

Who Has It: Thermo­Ball is currently exclu­sive to the North Face, but expect other brands to bring out products with it in 2015.

Warmth: One of the most insulating synthetic fibers we've ever tested.

Down Blends

What It Is: A fusion of natural and synthetic insulation.

Who Has It: This fall, Columbia will introduce TurboDown, which combines natural down with a proprietary insulation and the company's popular reflective technology, a metallic lining that bounces heat back to the body. Insulation maker PrimaLoft and major supplier Allied Feather and Down have plans to unveil down-poly blends within the year.

Warmth: Should be comparable to straight down, but it remains to be seen.

Polartec Alpha

What It Is: Developed for U.S. Special Forces, it's essentially a knit sheet of polyester that can be sandwiched between open-weave, breathable fabrics.

Who Has It: 66 North, Eddie Bauer, Marmot, and more than a dozen others.

Warmth: Not nearly as toasty as ­Thermo­Ball but lighter and much more breathable.

Infrared ­Insulation

What It Is: Synthetic fibers infused with ceramic or other materials that absorb body heat and, like a rock in the sun, slowly radiate it back to the wearer.

Who Has It: Ski-apparel maker Powderhorn has experimented with the technology; the North Face and Allied Feather and Down are both working on the idea.

Warmth: Mayo Clinic testing on ­female soccer players has proven disappointing. Says North Face's Vernachio: "We haven't been able to put it in a product yet that humans can detect."

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Guerillas on Two Wheels

Last March, Charles Komanoff, a New York City-based statistical analyst and consultant, rode his bike from his home in Lower Manhattan to the Flatiron District to engage in some light vandalism. Looking fit, rugged, and energetic, Komanoff stopped his bike near the corner of 23rd Street and Madison Avenue to meet some co-conspirators. Everyone was on a bike, though unlike many city cyclists, everyone was wearing a helmet, and had travelled to the site in strict observance of their rights and responsibilities on the road: always riding with traffic, on the right side of the street, and obeying stop signs and traffic lights along the way.

Ten days before, a woman riding her bike east, towards this intersection, had been struck and killed by a private dump truck pulling out into traffic. After seeing video footage from a nearby security camera, Komanoff and others in the bicycle advocacy group Right of Way concluded that the cyclist had had, well, the right of way. Knowing that no arrest had been made or summons served by the police officer investigating the collision, but believing that there should have been, the Right of Way-ers unloaded some pieces of cardboard from a trailer behind Komanoff’s bike, taped them down to the ground, and set about spray-painting a message onto the pavement.

A few members acted as lookouts on either end of the street, while others used their bodies and their bikes to shield the spray-painters from public view. In a similar demonstration near the Barclays Center in Brooklyn a few months before, the group briefly co-opted a pair of traffic cones that happened to be sitting on the street, unused, and narrowly avoided a confrontation with police officers on their way to the Long Island Railroad station nearby. Then, as now, the phrases “NO CRIMINALITY SUSPECTED,” and “WHY RAY WHY?” were neatly painted onto the blacktop when they were finished.

“Ray” was Ray Kelly, then the Commissioner of the NYPD; pointing to the fact that no charge was filed, the other stencilled message referred, ironically, to a phrase frequently used by the police to describe a collision involving a non-motorist, including those in which the motorist was driving recklessly or otherwise breaking the law. Later that day, the group would paint similar memorials around the city for pedestrians who had been killed by drivers who had been speeding, jumped the curb, or run a red light. In each of these cases, no driver had been charged with a crime.

{%{"quote":"“Last summer, a San Francisco a police officer deliberately parked his car in a bike lane during a Safe Streets rally, apparently to make the point that collisions involving cars and non-motorists were ‘the bicyclist's fault.’”"}%}

A running joke among riders in New York is that the best way to kill someone, and get away with it, is to run that person over with your car. Depending on who you ask, the hostility to cyclists is not limited to their hometown. In October, Toronto's mayor Rob Ford allocated $300,000 to remove a bike lane, having declared cyclists “a pain in the ass,” and their deaths “their own fault at the end of the day."

Last summer, a San Francisco a police officer deliberately parked his car in a bike lane during a Safe Streets rally, apparently to make the point that collisions involving cars and non-motorists were "the bicyclist's fault." In Seattle, a lawmaker proposed a carbon tax for cyclists, on the grounds that cyclists, with their higher respiration, expel more CO2 into the atmosphere. And many people saw the colorful reaction of Dorothy Rabinowitz, a conservative columnist at the Wall Street Journal, to New York’s Citibike bicycle sharing system (or its subsequent parody on The Colbert Report).

After watching a RoW intervention in Midtown, one cab driver rolled down his window to solemnly tell the group: “You know what you’re doing is wrong.” There is plenty of of acrimony to go around, so much that it’s probably not stretching things to suggest that we are in the midst of a proxy culture war over the place of bicycles on our roads and in our cities, or that the occasionally illegal guerilla efforts by Komanoff and company is simply stoking the fire; at least after the confrontation with the cab driver, they were undeterred. “We’re doing something for the public good,” Stephan Keegan, Right of Way’s chief organizer, told the NY Times last September, “So I think it’s O.K., even if it’s illegal.”

FRUSTRATED WITH CITY OFFICIALS doing nothing or very little to protect cyclists, a growing number of groups around North America have taken to this kind of DIY activism, much of it unauthorized if not downright illegal—painting bike lanes, putting up speed limit signs, installing unsanctioned barriers, or drawing “sharrows” (chevron-shaped arrows meant to encourage motorists to share the road with cyclists), which they feel the authorities should be doing anyway.

Others, while still meant to provoke the police, have been more sanguine. In 2010, members of Right of Way wore white hazmat suits labeled “Bureau Of Organized Bikelane Safety (BOOBS),” and rode around with a set of portable speakers to play “The Safety Dance,” by the 1980s synth-pop group Men Without Hats. A year ago, participants in a sister group called Times Up! dressed as clowns and handed out authentic-looking parking tickets to cars who were parked in bike lanes.

Stephan has been arrested multiple times, and at least once for his involvement in “clown rides,” when he was accused of impersonating a police officer. (At the time, Stephan was wearing a comically fake-looking uniform, as was his accomplice, Barbara Ross, whose red, adult-sized tricycle was confiscated. The two countersued for wrongful arrest, and in January, the city settled in mediation, agreeing to pay Stephan and Ross $11,000 apiece.)

Stephan has an idea of what attracts attention, and of what’s funny, even though when speaking about his work with Right of Way, his voice is usually flat and matter-of-fact. 286 people died in traffic collisions in New York last year, including 173 pedestrians, and while he is encouraged by the prospects of Vision Zero, a plan unveiled by the new mayor, Bill De Blasio, to end traffic fatalities by 2024, Stephan is at least a little skeptical, and a little indignant.

“We still have people dying,” he told me in recently. “You have to constantly push the envelope forward, or you’re going to go backward.”

GORDON DOUGLAS, A PHD candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago, uses the term “DIY urban design” to describe some of the work Right of Way is involved in. Some of its practitioners describe themselves as “radicals,” but most, he says, are simply private citizens working on their own to make public space more livable. “Often they’ll pretty explicitly acknowledge that the city doesn’t have the resources, or doesn’t have the authority,” he says. “So they say, ‘We have 300 bucks, and we know how to go to Home Depot and buy a lane striper. So why not?’”

Douglas says the typical DIY urban designer is a practical, civic-minded person who isn’t looking for trouble. This, by most accounts, was the attitude behind a bike lane painted by the Other Urban Repair Squad, an anonymous group in Toronto.

In the fall of 2005, members of the group turned their attention to a planned bike lane near the Huron-Sussex branch of the University of Toronto, which never came into being. Located near a subway stop, the stretch of Bloor Street between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street was a main artery for students. It had been a candidate for a bike lane conversion since the mid-1990s, and was singled out for a lane in the city’s official Bike Plan in 2001. The OURS members believed they had waited long enough, and so in October, they intervened by laying down a stenciled image of a cyclist, complete with a diamond shape used by the city. They even donned orange vests to redirect traffic, while waiting for the paint to dry.

Martin Reis, a photojournalist who lives in Toronto, noticed OURS’s work a few days later, and was chagrined when a manager of city road operations had it painted over (at the reported cost of $1,973.74).

“City council is bizarre in Toronto,” Reis said over the phone. “They see cycling either as a fringe activity, or an inconvenient form of transportation that they have to deal with.”

Members of OURS have described the 2005 action as “a test run.” It was replaced by a pink stencil, on the same street, in March 2006. Reis posted a picture of the painting on his blog, and soon, he was receiving emails from cyclists around the world, with photographs of projects like the one he saw. Through Reis, OURS also shared a pdf of a do-it-yourself manual for people who wanted to copy them.

“Despite their small size, these interventions make an impact,” Douglas wrote in an article last spring. “Even if these interventions are removed by authorities, they suggest the sort of city that residents actually want to see, something that authorities occasionally even recognize.”

{%{"image":"","caption":"Charles Komanoff in his New York City office."}%}

By and large, the projects Reis has documented are, indeed, small, but in cities where cyclists don’t necessarily feel welcome, they tend to stand out. Jimena Veloz, a blogger who lives in Mexico City, heard about the project in Toronto around 2009, when she was still in school. She has since joined a like-minded collective called Camina Haz Ciudad, and has searched for places for them to install DIY bike lanes that will attract attention.

“What we concluded here in Mexico City is that even though we want it, we can’t make the infrastructure ourselves,” Veloz says. “It’s too expensive, it’s too big for us to do that. But what we have done are very strategic projects that can catalyze government action.”

Rather than avoid police, members of CHC engage them deliberately, and in the past have painted bike lanes directly in front of the capitol, where the Congress of the Union meets. Most passersby—including a few members of Congress—spoke approvingly. When they were approached by the police, the group simply asserted that what they were doing was necessary and legal.

“It’s also the Mexican context, where mostly everyone does whatever they like,” Jimena says. “The police don’t have much. Of course they can arrest you, but they usually don’t, not even if you’re doing something really illegal. But if you are, they will stop you and ask you for money.”

{%{"image":"","caption":"Colective Camina, Haz Ciudad painted the streets and posted signs like this near Mexico City's Congress of the Union building."}%}

So far, no one in CHC has been arrested. Indeed, as much as stories about a “war on bicycles” (or, for that matter, a “war on cars”) might gather public attention, it is a challenge to find even one cantankerous urban planner who actually hates guerilla bicycle groups. In some cases, city governments welcome the citizens’ interventions, and say thank you.

THIS PAST APRIL, A GROUP in Seattle decided to modify a steep stretch of Cherry Street, a few blocks from City Hall. Tom Fucoloro, an Illinois native who moved to Seattle in 2009, rode through the area frequently, and while there had been a painted bike lane for a long time, he never felt entirely safe.

“It wasn't very comfortable to be huffing your way up the hill,” he said, adding that the road was very close to on-ramps to I-5. “When you're only going a few miles per hour, it can be really unsettling.”

With about $350 worth of equipment, members of the group Reasonably Polite Seattleites placed some plastic pylons along the path, photographed them, and then, like OURS, emailed their friendly local blogger. Fucoloro, who authors the Seattle Bike Blog, also received a few paragraphs explaining how the pylons would make riders feel safer, and noting that they were in any case put in place with a light adhesive (instead of epoxy, which is more permanent).

“If they so choose,” the group added, “Mayor McGinn and SDOT [Seattle Department of Transportation] can remove these in a matter of minutes.”

The pylons were, indeed, removed, but not without an equally polite response from Dungho Chang, Seattle’s Traffic Engineer, followed by another email, a few months later, explaining that the barriers they had originally installed would be made permanent.

When I spoke to him over the phone, Chang was busy making preparations for a parade to honor the Seattle Seahawks, who had just won the 2014 Super Bowl. He sounded cheerful and heartened, said he’d “always dreamed” of having his current job, and described the RPS intervention as “very humbling.”

“You are absolutely correct that there are low cost and simple ways to slow traffic, increase the sense of protection, and provide bicycle facilities that are more pleasant and accommodating for a larger portion of people who ride bicycles,” Chang wrote in an email to RPS. “I am truly appreciative that you care enough to take time, money, and risk to send your message to me and my staff.”

IN HIS OPTIMISM, his friendliness, and his eagerness to work with the anonymous group, Chang is in a minority. Perhaps because of the inherent pushiness of city life, or perhaps because the groups’ strategy is innately subversive and sneaky, attempts at a detente between motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians have continued to feel like the opposite: confrontational, and, at times, nasty.

Last spring, while riding downhill on Troy Avenue in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, stencilers from RoW were tailed by the driver of a grey SUV, who honked his horn, frustrated at their taking up the whole lane, and accelerated when the vehicle finally sped past. A few blocks further down, he narrowly avoided two pedestrians, a Hasidic couple, who were pushing a stroller across the street.

When I asked Komanoff about it later, he shrugged. “It’s like going to the zoo,” he said. “You’re observing some kind of some species that you know you’re connected to, and yet it’s quite alien.”

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