Poor security to blame for rhino horn heist

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iol scitech aprl 4 rhino horn INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS Du Plessis said most rhino horns went to Vietnam. Picture: Chris Collingridge

Johannesburg -

A major heist of more than 100 pieces of rhino horn worth tens of millions of rand was just waiting to happen, according to a security audit of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) offices dating from 2010.

On Sunday, robbers broke into the offices of the MTPA and, while leaving a number of other valuables including guns and ivory, stole the rhino horn pieces that could secure millions of rand on the black market.

The Star has seen a report by forensic consultant Paul O’Sullivan from four years ago that warned the MTPA of the high risk in storing the horns at its premises in Mbombela, urging the organisation to tighten 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 said.

“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,” it noted.

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

Meanwhile, Hawks spokesman Paul Ramaloko said they could not rule out the possibility of an inside job.

“We’ve launched a manhunt. We’re confident of a breakthrough soon.”

According to the MTPA, 112 pieces of rhino horn with a weight of about 80kg were stolen out of a safe on Sunday. The break-in was discovered by the security personnel on site around 5.30am on Monday.

“The pieces taken were kept in our storage for purposes of registering them, record-keeping and later (moving) them to another secure location where a bulk of stock is kept,” the MTPA said in a statement.

“During the burglary, access was gained through an office window, a strongroom was cut open in this office, the office door was broken and access was gained to the main strongroom, where the pieces were kept,” the organisation said. The MTPA said its perimeter was well secured, “with controlled access and 24-hour security personnel on guard with regular patrol intervals of the premises”.

But spokeswoman Kholofelo Nkambule said that, after O’Sullivan’s report, the organisation had decided to move the majority of the stockpile to another premises.

“However, those items that remain at our premises are those that are awaiting further processing, such as micro-chipping, DNA sampling and photographing, and are subject to further investigation by the SAPS,” said Nkambule.

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

He said the incident could see rhino-horn syndicates shift their attention to targeting stockpiles.

A total of 294 rhinos have been poached in South Africa since the start of the year, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs.

The Star

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