Wildlife traffickers are laundering hunting permits to smuggle rhinoceros horns to the Far East for use in medicinal potions.
Conservationists say the illicit trade is linked to organised criminal syndicates and has seen hundreds of horns smuggled out of South Africa in recent years. It has caused an increase in rhino-poaching incidents, leading to renewed concerns about the survival of the species.
The racket involves private game farms, mostly in Limpopo and North West, which buy rhinos on auction, usually from national or provincial parks. They get hunting permits from provincial conservation authorities, who do not check whether the hunts actually occur.
Often there is no hunt and the permits are used to launder illegally obtained horn. In other instances the hunt serves as a smokescreen, used to send horn overseas that would otherwise be banned in terms of an international agreement under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
”This skullduggery is the new way to make a quick buck in the wildlife industry. It’s straight bloody slaughter for rhino horn, with no ethics involved,” said a veteran rhino expert who asked not to be identified.
Hunters involved in ”canned” lion hunting, who were feeling the heat because of a recent government clampdown, openly admitted they had turned to the rhino ruse, he said.
African rhino horn sells for about R100 000 a kilogram on the black market in countries such as China, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, where it is ground into powders used to treat fever, flu and convulsions. The average horn weighs about 6kg or 7kg.
Michael Knight, chairperson of the Rhino Management Group, which represents conservation agencies, private owners and provincial agencies, said illegal traders are exploiting a gap in the permit system.
About 3 000 white rhino are being kept on private land in South Africa, he said. ”Conservation organisations are under pressure and don’t always have the ability to monitor what’s happening on private farms or to prevent poaching.”
The smugglers do not distinguish between white rhino, which are listed as threatened, and black rhino, listed as critically endangered, Knight said.
At a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission in Tanzania in June, concerns were raised about the number of live rhino being exported from South Africa to China. About 100 white and eight black rhino were reportedly exported in the past year, supposedly for educational purposes at zoos.
”It appears China will start farming rhino soon, which will serve to increase the demand for horn,” Knight said.
At least 40 000 rhino were poached for their horns between 1970 and 1987 and the species hovered on the brink of extinction, leading to the international ban on trade in horn. Populations have since stabilised — there are about 13 500 white rhino and 1 300 black rhino in South Africa now — but they are still listed as protected species by Cites.
The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism was to announce a national moratorium on trade in individual rhino horns and hunting trophies last Friday because of concerns about the new illicit trade.
According to the department’s figures, 205 rhino hunting permits were issued in 2006, but it could not say how many of these were used. More recent figures were not available.
During his budget vote speech in June, Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk mentioned there had been ”a dramatic increase in the illegal trade of rhino horn and in the hunting of white rhinos in the past two years”.
”This indiscriminate illegal trade in rhino is directly linked to organised crime and the fact that approximately 27 white rhino were poached in the Kruger National Park during the past two years, as well as a definite increase in incidents in other parts of the country,” Van Schalkwyk said.
Provincial authorities have undertaken to implement the moratorium until a policy or revised regulations are in place to stem the scam.