The recent seizure of more than R33 million worth of rhino horn at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport en route from South Africa has brought into sharp focus a report focusing on wildlife trafficking in the air transport sector.
The report, In Plane Sight, shifts South Africa from 12th position on the list of most trafficked countries in the air transport sector to eighth, changing places with Mozambique, with 88 recorded instances where animals/products were seized.
Authors Mary Untermohlen and Patrick Baine noted South Africa’s jump was both due to the inclusion of the marine products and mammal categories in this year’s analysis, as well as to a spike in rhino horn seizures in the past year – which occurred about the same time the department of environmental affairs (DEA) lost its battle to keep the moratorium on domestic rhino horn sales in place.
“This surge in seizure numbers could be an indication that traffickers are exploiting South Africa’s burgeoning rhino horn trade to obfuscate their activities,” the authors wrote.
Back in Turkey, the Demiroren News Agency reported on Wednesday customs officers had spotted a suspicious piece of luggage belonging to a passenger travelling from South Africa to Istanbul.
However, it appeared the owner of the luggage – which was found to contain nine rhino horns – left the airport and his baggage behind.
Untermohlen and Baine said that prior to 2017, Mozambique and Vietnam followed China as the most significant countries for rhino horn trafficking activity by air.
“But as rhino horn seizures have surged, South Africa has overtaken both countries by trafficking instance count, with 19 more instances in one year (a 106% increase). By comparison, Mozambique and Vietnam only measured seven more instances in the same timeframe each.
“Critics have argued that any legalisation of the rhino horn trade will result in more rhino horn trafficking activity and, more importantly, more rhino poaching deaths, as traffickers exploit the legal trade to obfuscate their illicit dealings.
“The spike in rhino horn air seizures in 2017 may be the first indication of the realisation of this concern,” the authors claimed.
The claim puts to the test the DEA claim that rhino poaching is on the decrease.
Despite being “committed to providing timely and comprehensive reports on the state of rhino poaching in South Africa”, Environment Minister Edna Molewa has released no poaching figures for 2018.
The last known numbers put forward by Molewa were 1 028 rhinos poached in 2017, a decrease of 26 animals over 2016.
“As a result of our antipoaching strategy in the KNP, we are now seeing a decrease in the number of poacher activities in the park with a total of 2 662 recorded in 2017 compared with 2 883 in 2016. This represents a decrease of 7.6%,” Molewa said at her last briefing in January.
In Plane Sight found the “lack of large-scale seizures in South Africa, the most prominent origin country for rhino horn, may suggest South African customs and enforcement officials are missing or not reporting large rhino horn shipments.”