The arrest this week of a rhino horn smuggler shows SA's battle to protect the animal is paying off, as syndicates' methods come into clearer focus.
Better coordination between government departments and the formation of a multidisciplinary task team to deal with South Africa’s rhino poaching crisis are beginning to bear fruit, with the arrest, following an anonymous tip-off, of a man suspected of smuggling rhino horns.
“This was definitely a major breakthrough from our side and a blow to the trafficking ring and rhino poaching,” said police spokesperson Captain Dennis Adriao.
On Tuesday law enforcement officials from the South African Police Service, the Ekhuruleni Metro Police and the department of home affairs arrested a Vietnamese man at a flat in Regent Road, Bedfordview. A search of the flat uncovered 10 rhino horns, one elephant tusk, passports, jewellery, and a large amount of cash in different currencies. The rhino horns were estimated to have a value of R15-million.
The man will appear in the Germiston magistrate’s court on charges relating to the possession of rhino horn and elephant tusk, under the Endangered Species Act and some charges relating to the foreign currency that was found. Adriao said further charges could be added to the docket.
Adriao said it was difficult to say where in a syndicate the suspect may have fit in, but added that officials from various government departments were still following up on leads concerning the investigation.
“I can’t elaborate further as this may jeopardise the investigation,” he said.
Asia’s appetite for rhino horn seems to escalate daily and poachers have become increasingly bold, arming themselves with high-tech weaponry to hunt rhino. Since the beginning of the year, 210 rhinos have been poached in South Africa. Of these, 127 were lost in the Kruger National Park.
Over the past few months, various branches of government have been working together in a multidisciplinary team coordinated by the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (Natjoints) to clamp down on the illegal rhino horn trade.
The NatJoints coordinates major events and operations that require cooperation between different agencies and government departments. Its previous operations include coordinating security for the 2010 World Cup and the local government elections.
Environmental affairs spokesperson Albi Modise said the bust is the result of the work done by various law enforcement agencies and government departments. “Rhino poaching is not just an environmental issue. It’s become a priority, hence the escalation to the NatJoints operation,” he said.
Modise said the department was also pursuing bilateral agreements with countries such as Mozambique, China and Vietnam to better deal with wildlife crimes effected across borders.
This type of coordinated approach has paid dividends in the United States. In February, American law enforcement officials pulled off the biggest rhino horn smuggling bust in US history, a feat made possible through the work of a special task team, consisting of about 150 officials from the US’s Homeland Security Department, Internal Revenue Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service.
The task team arrested eight people – including a rodeo cowboy, an antiques dealer and people with links to organised crime and traveller communities – and recovered 37 rhino horns valued at over R65-million. The smuggling ring was linked to Vietnam, China, the US, and Ireland.
South Africa does not have the kind of resources to throw at the problem that the US does, even though its rhino are at the heart of the trade, but local efforts starting to pay off.
The department of environmental affairs has said it is encouraged that the number of arrests made in this regard continues to rise. So far 128 suspects have been arrested for crimes related to rhino poaching this year.
However, journalist Julian Rademeyer, who recently travelled to Asia to investigate rhino horn smuggling rings, said even though more arrests are being made now than in the past, these were mostly affecting middlemen.
The closest South African officials had come to taking down a syndicate was in the case of Chumlong Lemtongthai, who is to stand trial in the Free State for his part in the illegal hunting of rhinos and trade in rhino horn – and lion bones.
Rademeyer said that more money, more manpower and a more proactive approach from government officials in terms of their dealings with countries where rhino horn was being smuggled to was needed to make an impact.
Rynette Coetzee, who heads the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s compliance and enforcement project on environmental legislation, said Tuesday’s incident showed that the national response to rhino poaching is starting to bear fruit.
“This is good news because it proves that the intelligence network is starting to work,” she said.
The maximum penalty for possession of rhino horn and elephant ivory is 10 years in jail or R10-million fine. But with additional charges for other crimes linked to smuggling, such as fraud or illegal possession of a weapon, the penalties could be much higher.
Coetzee said the challenge now was to ensure that magistrates took wildlife crime seriously.
“If we don’t give these [smugglers] strict penalties the long-term consequence will be the wiping out of an entire species.”