Mpuma rhino horn thieves nabbed

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Nelspruit -The syndicate responsible for stealing 112 fragments of rhino horn from the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) could soon be cracked after two of its members were arrested at the weekend.

The horns, believed to be worth millions of rand, were stolen from the Nelspruit offices in April and taken to a nearby graveyard, where they were buried in a shallow grave before being shipped into Mozambique a while later.

The horns had been kept at MTPA, after being taken from live rhinos, to ensure their safety.

As the syndicate did not take guns and ivory stored in the same facility and went straight for the rhino horns, investigators said at the time they thought it was an inside job.

But the two men arrested on Saturday and Sunday are not MTPA employees, said Hawks spokesman Paul Ramaloko.

However, a source close to the investigations told The Star on Monday morning that an inside job had all but been confirmed, and the horns could still be recovered.

The source told how the horns had been buried in a graveyard near the MTPA offices and left there for a couple of days before being transported to Mozambique.

It is understood the Mozambican authorities are co-operating with local investigators to ensure the recovery of the horns.

Ramaloko said they expected to make more arrests soon.

The two men held over the weekend were expected to appear in the Nelspruit Magistrate’s Court on Monday on charges of burglary and theft.

It is believed members of the syndicate accessed the MTPA building through an office window, then cut open the door to the main storage room before laying their hands on more than 80kg of rhino horns.

The break-in was discovered by security personnel at about 5.30am on April 21.

The Star has received a report by forensic consultant Paul O’Sullivan from four years ago that warned the MTPA of the high-risk nature of storing the horns at its premises in Nelspruit, urging the organisation to up its security.

“It was determined that there are inadequate security measures on such valuable items, making it well worthwhile for an organised team of robbers to carry out an armed robbery at the premises of the MTPA, for the purpose of stealing all the stored tusks and horns,” the report read.

“Although a successful robbery would depend on inside help, it should be noted that more than 90 percent of all major robberies in South Africa are carried out with the use of inside help.”

O’Sullivan told The Star that his forensic reports were confidential and he could thus not comment on his findings.

At the time, while not directly responding to questions posed by The Star on O’Sullivan’s report, the MTPA did say its perimeter was well-secured, with controlled access, 24-hour security personnel on guard and regular patrols of the premises.

Speaking on the value of the horns, rhino activist Terry Bengis said at the time the value differed depending on the level at which they were bought in the chain.

He said poachers generally earned between R30 000 and R35 000 for each horn, while the “end user” paid $62 000 (R655 603) a kilogram.

Bengis said he was worried that this incident could see the rhino horn syndicates shift their attention to targeting stockpiles.

The Star

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