$5,2 million rhino horn theft – where to now?
Dex Kotze
24 April, 2014

On 20 April, approximately 80kg of rhino horn was stolen from the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) offices in Nelspruit. Because rhino horn trades in excess of $65,000 per kilogram on the black market in Asia, that means someone is making up to $5,2 million on the theft – and raises the question of why there isn’t better security.

The 112 rhino horns were locked up in inadequately secured MTPA offices, and as yet the question has not been answered why the South African government is not securing these high-value items more tightly.

It’s a thorny question, since the items – despite being of such high value – are regarded as unethical produce.

Nonetheless, from a security perspective, the MTPA offices are a weak link. They are situated a mere 90 minutes from Mozambique, the hub of wildlife criminals in Southern Africa, and the capital, Maputo, is often the transit point for horns being moved for shipment to Vietnam or China.

These particular stolen horns were allegedly micro-chipped and DNA samples obtained. However, a delay in signing a properly executed Memorandum of Understanding between South Africa and Mozambique could potentially hinder retrieval of the horns from the criminal syndicates involved.

The Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, and the Mozambican Minister of Tourism, Carvalho Muária, signed a Memorandum of Understanding in the field of Biodiversity Conservation and Management at Skukuza in the Kruger National Park on 17 April this year.

According to a statement by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), “The development of a Joint Operations Cross Border Protocol by the park management will, once approved by the safety and security clusters of the two countries, provide for joint cross-border operations”. Minister Molewa also stated that “within the coming months, a further diplomatic agreement will be signed by South Africa and Mozambique to ensure the MOU comes into force”.

Yet a bilateral meeting already took place on 14 June 2013 in Maputo, Mozambique, between Minister Molewa and Minister Muária, during which the requirement of a government-to-government MOU on Cooperation in the field of Biodiversity, Conservation and Management was acknowledged.

One can therefore deduce that the MOU still does not facilitate the retrieval of the 80kg of rhino horn stolen over the weekend. This year already over 300 rhinos have been killed by criminals in South Africa, of which at least 185 were in Kruger National Park (KNP). Since 2010, a total of 1,614 rhinos have been slaughtered in the KNP, with the majority of onslaughts emanating from Mozambique. Four years later, there are still no effective measures from the South African government to curb the threat emanating from its neighbour state.

At a recent international conference on the assessment of rhino horn trade, hosted by OSCAP on 8-9 April, 19 international speakers with over 400 cumulative years’ experience in the fields of law, economics, wildlife conservation, wildlife trafficking, veterinary science, NGO involvement, conservation finance/marketing and business expressed their opinions that any form of legalised trade in rhino horn was unlikely to succeed. (A report on the OSCAP conference is soon to be released.)

The Department of Environmental Affairs did not attend the conference. The consensus, however, was along the following lines:

  • Rampant economic growth in Asian countries will result in demand outstripping supply;
  • The history of corruption in range, transit and consumer states precludes advocating legislation of trade in by-products of critically endangered species;
  • South Africa’s government has to abstain from any attempts to apply to CITES to legalise rhino horn trade when the Conference of the Parties meet in Cape Town in 2016;
  • Drastic changes to legislation are needed in range, transit and consumer states, specifically relating to bail applications and penalties applied;
  • Political will is required from governments across the world to eradicate the scourge of wildlife crime;
  • One of the issues raised in the OSCAP conference was that of corruption and inefficiency amongst officials, leading to an inability to control the crisis in rhino horn trading. At current poaching rates, projections indicate up to 1,500 rhino will be killed in 2014, which will culminate in another 50% year-on-year increase and an all-time high.

The latest theft, then, appears to be just a symptom of the ongoing destruction of Africa’s wildlife heritage.

Main photo: Flickr, Andy Bernay Roman.

For the article on the Daily Maverick click here.