Illicit consignment rhino horn worth R115 million seized as wildlife crime continues to pose a threat
The 41 pieces of rhino horn were stashed in six boxes, concealed in carbon paper and foil, wrapped in traditional material, and disguised as fine art.
The illicit consignment, valued at R115.7 million, was detected on Tuesday by sniffer dogs during a customs warehouse inspection at OR Tambo International Airport, destined for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The day before, customs officials seized a 47kg consignment of rhino horns destined for Malaysia at OR Tambo, which was marked and declared as scaffolding equipment, valued at R3m. Police are now investigating if there are any links between the two seizures.
Last year, and in the first half of this year, several major seizures of ivory, rhino horn, pangolin and rosewood have been recorded, says the World Wildlife Crime 2020 report, by the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The report identified a “sharp decline” in markets for ivory and rhino horn. Several very large seizures of both ivory and rhino horn were made last year, “which is likely to be a record year once all the data is in. Unless indicators emerge of renewed poaching, the source of this ivory was likely stockpiles, exported before prices declined further still”.
It is estimated that ivory and rhino horn generated more than $600million annually between 2016 and 2018.
The average price of rhino horn is significantly lower than the widely quoted $650000 per kilogram at $24300 (R404000). “At that price per kilogram, rhino horn might not be more valuable than gold. It is, however, as the efforts made to poach rhinos show, still a highly sought after product that yields sound revenues to those involved in the trade.”
The report analyses markets for illicit rosewood, ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, live reptiles, big cats and the European eel, finding that nearly 6000 species were seized over the past decade, which include mammals but also reptiles, corals, birds and fish.
No single country was identified as the source of more than 9% of the total number of seized shipments, while suspected traffickers represented roughly 150 nationalities, “underscoring the global nature of these crimes”.
Seizures of pangolin scales, used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, rose tenfold between 2014 and 2018, making the scaly mammals the most heavily trafficked wild mammals on earth. There has been a shift in the nature of pangolin seizures over time, away from live and meat seizures (mainly of Asian species) and towards African pangolin scale seizures.
Most seizures in recent years were of scales exported from Africa, especially Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to Asia, especially Vietnam.
African pangolin species were targeted after regulations tightened and populations were overexploited in Asia. Seizures of illicit tiger products are on the rise, alongside wildlife traffickers’ interest in other big cat parts that can serve as substitutes.
“In addition to tiger products, products based on other big cat species have been seen in the illicit market, raising concern for those species, including clouded leopard, snow leopard, jaguar, and lion parts, some passed off as tiger products. African lions appear to be the species of greatest concern, though, with current interest in the bone trade spurring a rise in the South African lion and tiger breeding industry.” There are around 450 captive tigers in 72 facilities in SA compared with 363 lion breeding facilities with more than 7000 captive lions.
“Lion appears to be the main supplemental species for tiger at this point because there is a plentiful supply from South Africa. UNODC fieldwork in SA suggests that exporters sometimes illegally combine tiger bones with lion bone exports, the two being difficult to distinguish. Examples of illegal trade in tiger bone from South Africa to Asia have been detected.
“There have also been instances where tiger bone and lion bone coming from legal captive breeding facilities in South Africa have been seized in connection with the same organised criminal group.”
Corruption is a “critical enabler” of the illicit wildlife trade, taking place at sourcing, transit and export stages, and involving public and private sector abuse of power and trust.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted that wildlife crime is a threat not only to the environment and biodiversity, but also to human health, economic development and security, says the report. “When wild animals are poached from their natural habitat, butchered and sold illegally, the potential for transmission of zoonotic diseases is increased.”
While open street markets selling a wide range of protected species products "are a reality, they cannot account for the volumes of wildlife illegally harvested each year”.
John Scanlon, of the End Wildlife Crime Initiative, says the report "shows that we are lacking an agreed definition of wildlife crime, of the need for enhanced international co-operation, that countries are not utilising the various tools available to tackle these crimes under the UN conventions especially the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime and of the need to look beyond CITES international trade rules and listed species.
“It reinforces the need for a wildlife crime convention to unequivocally embed these crimes where they belong - into the international criminal law framework.”