Article by Kotie Geldenhuys;
Photos by Kotie Geldenhuys, Frans van der Merwe and SanParks
In June 2017, two Chinese nationals were removed from an Istanbul-bound plane just before take-off at OR Tambo International Airport in Gauteng. This was after SARS customs officials discovered ten rhino horns in their luggage. Both passengers were arrested by the police. Only three days earlier, two separate seizures of illegal rhino horn at Hong Kong International Airport were also reported. In one case, a 46-year-old male passenger was arrested after he arrived on a flight from OR Tambo International. Customs agents found 2.5 kg of rhino horn wrapped in tin foil and placed inside a food package in his check-in luggage. In a separate incident on the following day, Hong Kong customs officers made a bigger bust when they seized another 10.5 kg of suspected rhino horns. They intercepted a 23-year-old male passenger who had arrived in Hong Kong from Jakarta, Indonesia. They estimated street value of that stash was just over R3.4 million. The common thread in all three cases was that Hong Kong was the ultimate destination (Bloch, 2017a and 2017b).
Although it has been completely illegal for many years, rhino horn is still present and available for sale throughout China. And it is easy to obtain - simply walk into a so-called "antiques shop" in China and ask for it - even though the trade has been outlawed since 1993. However, the rhino horn products showcased at these "antique shops" are far from unique. They are new and are likely to have been illegally trafficked from Africa to Vietnam and then into China (Crosta et al, 2017).
The Elephant Action League (EAL), a USA-based NGO which protects nature by investigating wildlife crime, exposing the criminals, traffickers and corrupt individuals behind it and helping law enforcement gather information and evidence, has initiated Operation Red Cloud, an undercover intelligence gathering and investigative operation. Operation Red Cloud was executed over a period of 11 months from August 2016 to June 2017, to target the latter part of the rhino horn supply chain in China and Vietnam.
Crosta et al (2017) argue that unprecedented consumer demand for rhino horn in China and Vietnam is creating extraordinary economic incentives for poaching and trafficking in African countries. Rhino horns can command prices as high as $60 000 p/kg, driving poaching rates higher than they have been in two decades across Africa. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, as of 2016, poaching has increased by more than 8000% in South Africa since 2007 (1054 rhino were poached in 2016, compared to 13 in 2007). South Africa is where 79% of the African rhino population resides. On 24 July 2017, the Minister of Environ-mental Affairs, Ms Edna Molewa, said that there has been a slight decrease in the number of rhino poached nationally in 2017. A total of 529 rhino have been poached since January 2017, compared to 542 in the same period for 2016, representing a decrease of 13 rhinos. With regard to the Kruger National Park (KNP), which has traditionally borne the brunt of poaching, a total of 243 rhino carcasses were found between January and the end of June 2017 - compared to 354 in the corresponding period in 2016. This represents a decrease of 34%. Emslie et al (2016) note that, for Africa as a whole, the total number of rhino poached during 2015 was the highest in two decades at 1342. Although poaching rates slightly declined in 2016 in most African range states, the crisis is not yet resolved.
Emslie et al (2016) argue that the trade is further highlighted when reviewing the quantity of horns hitting the market. According to a CITES report for CoP17, "illegal sourcing of horns from poaching, natural mortality, stockpile thefts, pseudo-hunting and private sector sales suggests that an estimated 8691 (2674 on average annually) rhino horns were obtained from October 2012 through (to) 2015". Seizures of rhino horn during this period totalled only 2111 horns, so the remaining 6580 rhino horns ultimately hit the illegal market. This is double the quantity estimated for the previous CITES reporting period and represents approximately 20 tonnes of rhino horn moving out of Africa and into illegal trade in a mere three-year time span (Emslie et al, 2016).