Lam Tak-fai, acting head of Ports and Maritime Command, arranges rhino horns, part of a 33 rhino horns, ivory chopsticks and bracelets shipment seized by the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department, during a news conference in Hong Kong November 15, 2011. Hong Kong Customs seized on Tuesday a total of 33 rhino horns, 758 ivory chopsticks and 127 ivory bracelets, worth about HK$17.4 million ($2.23 million), inside a container shipped from Cape Town, South Africa, according the a customs press release. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (CHINA - Tags: CRIME LAW BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT ANIMALS)

It could just be a new method used by syndicates to smuggle rhino horn out of the country: bulk consignments, hidden in containers and sent by sea. But rhino syndicates are not just using new smuggling routes, poachers also appear to be changing their tactics to target more animals.

On Monday, customs officials in Hong Kong discovered 33 rhino horns that had been hidden in a container on a ship that had left Cape Town. They also seized 758 ivory chopsticks and 127 ivory bracelets, which they estimated was worth HK$ 17.4 million (R18.17m).

Customs officers had apparently selected the container “acting on risk assessment”. It was marked as carrying 63 packages of scrap plastic. Using X-ray equipment, they found the contraband hidden inside a package of plastic scrap that had been placed at the rear of the container. The 33 horns, which weighed 86kg, constitute nearly a tenth of the rhinos poached in SA this year.

Dr Richard Thomas, the communications co-ordinator for Traffic International, said such a large seizure of rhino horns was unusual. “Usually there are reports of one or two horns being smuggled out through the airports, I can’t think of such a shipment before,” he said.

Thomas said the Cape Town to Hong Kong sea route was usually used by perlemoen smugglers, and that rhino horn syndicates might be using the same network.

What he suspected was that from Hong Kong the horn might be smuggled overland through China on to Vietnam, with its large market for rhino horn. There is also an active ivory-smuggling route between the two Far East countries. Two weeks ago, Vietnamese authorities seized a ton of ivory that had come from China.

South African Revenue Service spokesman Adrian Lackay said they had received news of the confiscation and had been in touch with the Hong Kong authorities.

“We will assist the foreign agencies with a local investigation if needed, because the goods came from South Africa,” he said.

Since January, 366 rhinos have been killed across the country. Of those, the majority of the killings have been in the Kruger National Park, where 209 rhinos were slain.

To date, 199 poachers have been arrested since January – compared to 165 arrested for last year. Thai nationals Chumlong Lemtongthai and Punpitak Chunchom are currently in court for exporting rhino horn.

Lemtongthai, the syndicate’s alleged kingpin, used Thai prostitutes and strippers as bogus rhino hunters. He would allegedly obtain legal trophy permits to shoot the rhinos.

SANParks CEO Dr David Mabunda said that despite the higher number of rhino killings this year, the number of incidents was declining. The reason was a change in modus operandi by the poachers. They were still using AK-47s and other heavy-calibre weapons and hacking off the horns. But poachers were attacking in larger groups than before, sometimes up to 16 armed members. Mabunda said the source of the rhino horn in the container came from several parks: private and state owned. The bust showed the urgency for the DNA profiling of the rhino, currently being done by the University of Pretoria.

It would tell where the rhino had been killed, and once a horn could be linked to a carcass, a poacher could be charged with killing an endangered species. Killing an endangered species carries a heavier sentence than possession of rhino horn.

Mabunda said they continued to work with the police and the SA National Defence Force, and at any time, there were between eight and 10 anti-poaching groups operating in the Kruger National Park.

The strengthening of the park’s law enforcement meant that crime was being displaced to other parts of the country. The hardest hit areas were Limpopo, Mpumalanga and rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal. - The Star