Nelspruit - They left the guns and ivory, and pulled off the largest such heist in South African history.
What the criminals got away with were 40 rhino horns that the loot authorities had seized from poachers. The gang that broke into the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) offices in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, on Sunday knew what they wanted as they made off with 40 rhino horns in what has been described as the largest such heist in South Africa.
Hawks spokesman Captain Paul Ramaloko said they were unsure how many people had broken through the door’s two locks before grinding out an opening in the safe. He declined to reveal any more details about the break-in, but said guns and elephant tusks were left behind.
“This gives us the impression that they knew what they were looking for,” Ramaloko said.
These horns were from incidents where poachers had killed rhinos, but had been unable to remove the horns, he said.
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.”
The spokeswoman for the MTPA, Kholofelo Nkambule, said they could only comment once they had received all the relevant information from the police.
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 poachers in South Africa generally earned between R30 000 and R35 000 for each horn, while the “end user” paid $62 000 (R6.5 million) for a kilogram. Bengis estimated each horn in the stockpile weighed about 4kg, meaning the 40 horns could weigh in at 160kg.
At this estimate, the stolen stockpile could be worth R104m at the end-user side of the chain while other media estimates pinned the total at about R168m.
“Usually, we calculate that two to three horns enter the market every day - what is 40 horns going to do to the current market?” Bengis asked.
Bengis said he was worried that this incident could see the 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 latest figures from the Department of Environmental Affairs.
Meanwhile, two men are expected to appear in the Tzaneen Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday in an unconnected case of rhino poaching.
Police spokeswoman Colonel Ronel Otto said the two men, aged 21 and 25, were arrested on Saturday in Letsitele, 32km east of Tzaneen, in Limpopo.
“Police confiscated two unlicensed firearms and ammunition as well as an axe and knives,” Otto said.
Police suspect the two men were travelling to a farm in the area to poach a rhino.
They were charged with illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.
Last Thursday, South African and Mozambican authorities signed an anti-poaching agreement in a bid to combat syndicates which operate across the border.
The agreement reached meant the two countries would share anti-poaching technologies and intelligence.