Seized rhino horn returned to South Africa

28 November 2013

A consignment of 33 rhino horns that was seized by customs officials in Hong Kong in November 2011 has been returned to South Africa. The horns together weigh 79.9 kilograms and are worth an estimated R23.8-million on the black market.

The horns, along with a large number of elephant ivory products, arrived at OR Tambo Airport International Airport on Wednesday.

Colonel Johan Jooste, of the Hawks special investigation unit of the SA Police Service, told a press briefing at the airport that a container allegedly containing waste, parings and scrap plastic had been cleared at an SA Revenue Service office in Johannesburg in October 2011, transported to Cape Town and shipped to Hong Kong.

“On 15 November 2011, Hong Kong customs officials seized a container of 33 rhinoceros horns along with 758 ivory chopsticks and 127 ivory bracelets,” he said.

An investigation was then launched by the Hawks’ endangered species unit and a docket presented to the National Prosecuting Authority, after which South Africa applied to China for the return of the horns. Both countries are party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Jooste said the success of the investigation was encouraging, and that it was evident that the Chinese government was willing to co-operate in combating wildlife crime.

“It’s a positive step forward, we see the engagement of other countries seeing it as important as we do.”

He said the return of these items meant they could now be forensically analysed, which could lead to the arrest of the poachers as well as the couriers of the illegal shipment.

Department of Environmental Affairs deputy director-general Fundisile Mketeni said that in addition to an existing agreement on legal assistance between South Africa and China, the government was now negotiating a broader agreement which included co-operation on biodiversity matters.

This agreement was an improvement “because we are not [only] going to look at rhinos but all environmental crimes, issues of awareness, technology transfer, compliance, aligning our laws, harmonised policies. It gives us space to work better with Hong Kong.”

Mketeni said the investigation and subsequent return of the horns demonstrated that the government took poaching and the illegal trade in horns seriously, “otherwise, we could easily lose all our rhinos and we would have lost our heritage.”