Honk the horn, we’ve got a rhino poacher in our midst
How come OR Tambo did not find a huge rhino horn consignment that was in the end intercepted in Hong Kong?
Why were border police in Hong Kong able to find two massive consignments of smuggled rhino horns from Johannesburg in the space of a few weeks, but their counterparts at OR Tambo International Airport failed to intercept them?
That’s the question raised by the department of environmental affairs on Wednesday after two separate shipments of rhino horns – both worth millions of rands – slipped past customs and security officials in Johannesburg, only to be detected hours later at Hong Kong International Airport.
The department has welcomed the latest seizure of 82.5kg of rhino horns in Hong Kong following X-ray checks by Chinese officials, but said an urgent review of security measures at OR Tambo was needed.
Less than two months ago, another consignment of nearly 40kg of rhino horn was intercepted at Hong Kong International Airport, shortly after arriving from SA.
“It remains a concern that these consignments are not being detected and seized before they leave South Africa, and a review of the measures in place to make such detections is urgently required in order to continue to adapt to the shifts in the modus operandi of the syndicates involved in this transnational crime,” department spokesperson Albi Modise said in a statement.
Modise said his officials had also contacted the Hong Kong department of agriculture, fisheries and conservation so that DNA samples of the horns could be brought to SA to determine whether they were linked to any ongoing, or unsolved, poaching investigations.
The global wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC also voiced concern on Wednesday.
“The detection of two large rhino horn seizures from South Africa in Hong Kong in the past few weeks does indicate that screening procedures need to be tightened at OR Tambo. It’s important to try and determine how the shipments got past security,” said spokesperson Dr Richard Thomas.
“Media reports indicate the more recent seizure was in air cargo rather than passenger luggage, so tightening up needs to be across the board. Clearly, traffickers will exploit any of the transport links between the two continents.”
Though officials at OR Tambo appear to have slipped up with the two latest shipments, SA Revenue Services (Sars) officers did manage to intercept an even larger consignment of 116kg of horns at the airport on January 9.
This was after a sniffer dog named Lizzy alerted her handlers to a suspicious-smelling consignment of “decoration items” in an airport warehouse. Customs officials then cut open eight boxes held together with bubble wrap and found 36 horns, destined for Dubai, hidden beneath doormats and other decorative items.
Sars officials said the horns were worth about R23m, though the black market street value could be much higher.
The latest seizures come at a time when more than 7,000 rhinos have been poached across SA over the last decade. It has also emerged that the rhino population in Kruger National Park – the largest rhino sanctuary in the world – has been slashed by at least half over the same period, due to a combination of relentless horn poaching and severe drought.
According to the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department, the latest seizure of 82.5kg of horns was made on Friday, April 5, when customs officers inspected a transhipment cargo at Hong Kong International airport that arrived from SA, with Malaysia listed as the end destination.
The cargo was declared as “auto parts”, but suspicious X-ray images revealed otherwise. No arrests have been reported yet.
In a previous case on February 14, Hong Kong customs officers seized about 40kg rhino horns hidden in passenger hand luggage.
“Customs officers intercepted two male passengers, aged 28 and 33, at the airport. The two men arrived in Hong Kong from Johannesburg, South Africa. They were planning to transit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, by air,” Hong Kong officials said.
Sars didn’t respond to queries on the environment department’s call for a security review at OR Tambo.