Pretoria — Recent raids in South Africa have uncovered disturbing evidence of the changing dynamics of rhino horn trafficking from Africa to Asia.
On 12 June 2017, police raided a house in the Johannesburg suburb of Cyrildene and discovered a home workshop where rhino horn was being processed into beads, bracelets, bangles and other commodities. A quantity of drugs, ammunition and bones - believe to be lion bones - were also found. Two Chinese citizens and a Thai woman were arrested at the scene.
"Pendants, Powder and Pathways*--A rapid assessment of smuggling routes and techniques used in the illicit trade in African rhino horn", a new report by TRAFFIC, released September 18, documents a number of recent cases in which police have discovered rhino horn processed into jewellery. Bags of rhino horn powder have also been found.
The cases are particularly worrying: they signify an apparent shift in the modus operandi of the organized criminals trafficking horn. Prior to these cases, seizures have typically comprised whole horns, or ones simply cut into two or more pieces. Cutting tusks into smaller items may make sense if you are attempting to try and conceal them in order to smuggle them to the other side of the planet, but the implications are potentially far more serious.
In China, TRAFFIC's routine monitoring of e-commerce sites has found a number of instances of rhino horns beads, bangles and other items for sale, and while the rhino horn powder--the by-product of rhino horn processing--may well be sold for medicinal usage, it appears rhino horn trafficking is morphing into a luxury product trade.
Similarly, investigations by the Wildlife Justice Commission in the village of Nhi Khe, a traditional craft village 20km south of Hanoi, Viet Nam, found "clear and irrefutable evidence of an industrial-scale crime hub" where rhino horn bracelets, beads and bangles were manufactured, primarily for Chinese buyers.
Over the past decade, more than 7,100 rhinos have been killed for their horns in. South Africa, home to 79% of Africa's last remaining rhinos, is the centre of the storm, suffering 91% of the continent's known poaching losses in 2016.
Facilitated by resilient, highly-adaptive criminal networks and endemic corruption in many countries along the illicit supply chain, demand for rhino horn is driven by consumers in Asia, with Viet Nam and China identified as the dominant end use markets and the implications of a newly emerging and potentially vast market for luxury products, and the poaching-fuelling demand are indeed serious.
Enforcement authorities in South Africa are already struggling to cope with the traffickers who exploit weaknesses in border controls and law enforcement capacity constraints to provide a steady supply of rhino horn to Asian black markets. Their routes span multiple airports, borders and legal jurisdictions, taking advantage of fragmented law enforcement responses that are hamstrung by bureaucracy, insufficient international co-operation and corruption.
It is estimated that between 2010 and June 2017, at least 2,149 rhino horns, weighing more than five tonnes, were seized by law enforcement agencies globally. This is a fraction of the estimated 37.04 tonnes of rhino horn obtained from the 6,661 rhinos officially reported to have been killed by poachers in Africa between 2010 and 2016 and doubtless entering illegal trade.
While efforts to detect and deter criminals have been hampered by a lack of international co-operation, the new aspects of horn trafficking pose yet further complexity: along the trade routes between Africa and Asia, enforcement officers are focused solely on detecting horns or pieces of horns and nobody is really on the lookout for rhino horn products.
Smuggling methods are infinitely versatile, limited only by imagination and opportunity. As new smuggling methods are identified by law enforcement agencies, trafficking networks adapt and refine their tactics, finding new methods of concealment and new weaknesses to exploit.
The smugglers' efforts are sometimes crude; wrapping horns in aluminium foil, smearing them with toothpaste and shampoo to hide the smell of decay, or coating them in wax. Over time, more sophisticated methods have emerged; horns disguised as curios and toys, hidden in bags of cashew nuts, wine boxes and consignments of wood, or concealed in imitation electronic and machine parts. Circuitous transit routes, luggage drops and exchanges are used to confuse the trail.
The added complication of seeking out small commodities makes the task of detection even harder. To counteract the newly emerging threat, enforcement agencies need more resources, while it is also vital that investigations do not stop at seizures of illicit wildlife products. Rather, seizures should be regarded as a first step in broader, targeted investigations focusing on the networks and key individuals facilitating the trafficking of rhino horn and other wildlife products.
Unless such measures are taken, the already troubled future for Africa's rhinos looks bleaker than ever.
*Pendants, Powder and Pathways was produced by TRAFFIC under a project aiming to Reduce Trade Threats to Africa's Wild Species and Ecosystems. The project is funded by Arcadia--a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.