/ 3 August 2023

Parliamentary committee briefed on theft of 51 rhino horns

Saving Rhinos Through Information
A parliamentary committee received a briefing on Wednesday about how a sophisticated criminal syndicate pulled off a brazen heist at the headquarters of the North West Parks and Tourism Board, stealing 51 rhino horns

A parliamentary committee received a briefing on Wednesday about how a sophisticated criminal syndicate pulled off a brazen heist at the headquarters of the North West Parks and Tourism Board, stealing 51 rhino horns from its stockpile.

An inspection of the crime scene revealed that the perpetrators were “well informed of security measures” on the premises, since they had “directly targeted and deactivated all security early-warning systems on the building” Thami Matshego, the board’s acting CEO, said in her presentation to the portfolio committee on forestry, fisheries and the environment. 

The board manages 15 protected areas, four populations of white rhino and two populations of black rhino. Matshego explained that because of natural dynamics in these populations, including natural mortalities, infighting, horn breakages and dehorning, loose or broken horns are collected or picked up by rangers on patrol in the veld. 

These horns are registered and stored in a specially constructed vault at the board’s headquarters at Heritage House in Mafikeng because of the demand for and economic value of rhino horn.


On 26 June, at about 6.05am, the senior manager of resource security at Heritage House was informed about a burglary on the premises, she said. Criminals had broken into the premises and the safe in the office of the senior manager, where the main vault’s key is kept, had been forcefully removed.

The suspects forced open the aluminium door on the ground floor of the east wing of the building. They went to the first floor and deactivated the alarm at the stockpile vaults. 

Matshego said they disabled the CCTV cameras in front of the resource security offices and managed to access the security rooms with the main vault and the other strongroom. The premises are patrolled by armed security guards. The one guard who was at the site didn’t “see or hear anything out of the ordinary”.

CCTV footage

The footage retrieved from the CCTV system showed two suspects wearing balaclavas, who entered the main vault and took 51 rhino horns packed into bags. This footage was later downloaded and handed over to the organised crime division of the South African Police Service (SAPS). Based on CCTV camera time, the incident lasted for about one and half hours. 

The horns were in a tray to be profiled and fitted with transponders. “Unfortunately, only

about 10 of these horns have been completed,” Matshego said.

The vault had quite “detailed and intense” security measures.

“We tried to mimic exactly what the banks use for their vaults so it is certain that it is people who know, who are with us, and who work with us and people who are highly sophisticated, who were able to evade such a high-level, sophisticated security system.”

Enforcement officials of the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment (DFFE) were notified on the same day and a departmental official immediately alerted colleagues at the border posts of the theft and they activated protocols.

Matshego said the board is working closely with the SAPS, the Hawks and other security apparatus who have made “remarkable progress with regard to arrests they made” and said “we’ve been promised that very soon there will be more arrests”. 

“We hope those people, especially those who are up in the chain of this criminal syndicate are arrested — that will be a victory in terms of the country and in terms of the board.”

She added that “when we were interviewed, we were told that all of us here at the board are suspects because it happened in our premises”. State security services are conducting a detailed security assessment and “will give us a comprehensive report on key areas of intervention”.

Arrests so far

In his briefing to the committee, the provincial head of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI), Major General Patrick Mbotho, said that an investigation team had been established. It had gathered evidence and identified suspects involved in the theft. 

Four suspects were arrested in the following days. They are Elias Manganda, 40; Lindani Vernon Mthombeni, 32; Lonjezo Kanjipiti, 26 and Lefa Daniel Mankgaba, 46. 

Mthombeni and Mankgaba were released on bail of R2 000 and R5 000, respectively. The case has been postponed to 14 August for further investigation. As there is not sufficient evidence against Kanjipiti, he remains in custody on immigration violations.

The suspects face charges including housebreaking, theft, illegal dealing in rhino horns, conspiracy, possession of stolen property, illegal possession of firearms, money laundering, corruption and racketeering, while “new charges may be added as the investigation unfolds”. 

Mbotho said the horns, valued at R9 million, have not been recovered but investigations are continuing. “We’ve identified extra suspects and we’re also following the information as to where the actual horns were sold.” 

Wildlife crime, he said, has been declared a priority crime by the DPCI. It is “not purely a conservation and environmental management problem”, but constitutes a highly sophisticated form of serious transnational crime that is “also a threat to national security”.

Other attempts

According to Matshego, there were two previous attempts to break into the vault to access the rhino horn stockpile. In August 2014, a group of nine men overpowered the security guards, broke into the storeroom area and blasted open the strongroom with explosives. They couldn’t get into the main vault and only computers and small items were stolen. Security was reinforced. 

In September 2017, robbers attempted to break through the outside wall of the safe but the alarm was triggered and armed response reacted immediately. In 2018, the outside walls of the vault were reinforced.

Empty vault

Matshego said on 27 June, the board requested assistance from the DFFE to move the remainder of the horns from their office to a safe location and the main vault is currently empty.

Recently, the board transferred all rhino stockpiles to national central vaults for safekeeping. But since then, rhino horns had been picked up from dead rhino, as well as dehorning operations, and the horn stockpile is growing again.

“Maybe the area that I think we need to improve better in future is that we must not wait for a long time with the stockpile, if we are still to use the vault. 

“After dehorning, and after picking up any horn, we must just move them immediately and not store them for a long period of time. That is the main loophole that I saw in the whole incident but, other than that, the board did all it could to make sure that whatever was placed in our vault was highly secured.”


At the committee’s briefing, it emerged that the term of the board had recently lapsed. 

“We have not yet appointed the board,” Matshego said. “The board lapsed three months ago and we are now in the process of appointing a new board. Next month, we’ll have a board.”

Committee member and Democratic Alliance MP Dave Bryant, said he has some sympathy for the individuals whose job it is to look after these facilities. 

“We know that rhino horn is incredibly sought-after in China and it is trafficked there quite regularly, and therefore it’s incredibly valuable and people are willing to put their lives on the line, and other people’s lives, and break into facilities etc.

“But I think this whole case really brings the question up in terms of whether or not any entity … which is in a lot of flux, clearly, should be looking after such incredibly valuable materials and whether or not this responsibility should be given to another entity instead so as to take the risk and the strain off their own personnel. This should be looked into by the ministry.”

As long as rhino horns are being kept and stockpiled, “we have to make sure that there is zero risk of those stockpiles being pilfered and people’s lives being put at risk”.