On Wednesday the team returned from Hong Kong reaping the fruits of a two year long struggle of building relations and investigations that resulted in the return of 33 Rhino horns, 758 ivory chop sticks and 127 ivory bracelets that were smuggled from Cape Town in 2011
The container with the contraband was allegedly listed as containing waste and scrap, was cleared at the import-and-export customs office of the South African Revenue Services in Alberton, Johannesburg. On 15 November 2011 Hong Kong customs officials seized the goods.
Colonel Johan Jooste, the national commander of the endangered species unit within the Hawks, said this operation was a first of its kind and is a major breakthrough in the trafficking of Rhino horn.
“We are learning more about their smuggling tactics and routes,” said Jooste.
A forensic expert revealed that 33 rhino horn weighed a total of 79.9 kg, while the elephant ivory products, weighing a total of 22.2 kg, would fetch around R100 000 on the black market.
Further forensic evaluation of the rhino horn found that not only adult rhinos fell victim to the poaching, but that the horns of young juvenile/sub-adult rhinos were also poached. The horns had been cut at the growth point of the horn which suggests they were obtained from rhinos that had been killed.
Jooste said they had identified three suspects based in Hong Kong and that only continued investigations would reveal who was behind this botched smuggling attempt.
The Hawks believe this consignment is most the result of a large syndicate operation. Jooste confirmed that the products might have been destined for Hong Kong but that alternative evidence points towards Vietnam as being the final destination.
Hawks said the next step of the investigation would be to analyse the rhino horns and retrieve DNA which could lead to the arrest of suspects and criminal prosecutions both locally and abroad.
Authorities said preliminary tests indicated the elephant ivory products seized were made by machine.
“We believe that there is modernised technology involved to make these items,” said Jooste. “We don’t know where the ivory came from and whether it was made and taken from South Africa, but further investigations will reveal these answers.”
The preliminary report on the ivory suggests that multiple elephants were killed to produce enough ivory to manufacture all the items that were seized adding that these were part of mass production.
Department of Environmental Affairs Deputy Director General Fundisile Mketeni said that the memorandum of understanding signed between Hong Kong administration and South Africa played a pivotal role in the success of the operation. He added this has strengthened ties between the two countries and that they will continue building strong relations.
The rhino horns and elephant ivory will be added to the South African stock pile once investigations have been concluded. Until then they will be kept for the purpose of investigations and evidence for prosecution.
This has been the latest attempt in the fight against rhino poaching as the number of rhino has increased to 891 compared to 668 in 2012, arrests have jumped 310 this year following an increase of 25 in the past week alone.