By Ellanie Smit
There are clear indications that organised criminal groups, led by African-based Asian nationals, are directly involved in the procurement and illegal movement of rhino horns out of Africa to markets in Asia, especially Vietnam.
It has also been established that while these Asian-led groups promote, support and benefit from rhino poaching operations throughout the continent, the illegal hunting itself is mostly done by local or regional African poachers operating in loosely structured and frequently changing groups of shooters and trackers.
Apart from major involvement in legal sport hunting operations in the period 2005 through 2010, Asian operatives in Africa do not engage in the illegal hunting themselves.
This is according to a new report, ‘Illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn: an assessment to improve law enforcement’. The report was prepared by the wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC in partnership with by US Agency for International Development (USAID).
This report provides critical insight into often violent and complex trade networks that aim to help countries target their law enforcement efforts.
According to the report, rhino horn trade is one of the most heavily criminalised facets of the global wildlife trade with African-based Asian syndicates responsible for moving large volumes of rhino horn to end-use markets in Asia.
“With almost no high-value arrests within the leadership of these transnational criminal organisations, so far law enforcement within Africa has been met with little success in dealing with rhino crime,” according to the report.
Illegal trade in rhino horn has reached the highest level since the early 1990s and last year, nearly 2 000 rhino horns are estimated to have gone into illegal trade.
The illegal supply of rhino horn out of Africa is now more than 30 times greater than it was observed in early 2000.
Currently, three rhinos are illegally killed every single day and the main concern is that the situation has still not bottomed out, the report further says.
Over 98% of all of Africa’s remaining rhinos are found in just four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Zimbabwe. These four nations collectively have 25 008 out of the estimated 25 510 rhinos found in 12 countries.
Namibia has recently seen a surge in rhino poaching. From 2006 to 2013, a total of ten rhino poaching incidents were reported.
This year, 14 rhino carcasses and 14 elephant carcasses were found in Namibia while 33 elephant teeth, one elephant tail and four elephant feet and 20 rhino horns were confiscated.
Suspects that were arrested for the poaching or for having the illegal products included 14 Namibians, six Chinese, three Zimbabweans, one Angolan and one Motswana.
According to the report, the rhino horn trade is currently being driven by resurgent demand in Vietnam, a country that previously - in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s - was not part of the trade and China has also emerged as a key consumer.
Most rhino horns are illegally transported by air using specially recruited couriers who typically carry the contraband in carry-on or check-in luggage.
The report says that international airports in Johannesburg, Maputo, Nairobi and Addis Ababa in Africa, and Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi in the Middle East, are frequently involved in the movement of rhino horns between Africa and Asia, especially at international airports in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore.
Vietnam, the principal destination, does not have any direct air links with Africa and relies on transit countries to serve as intermediaries along the trade chain, says the report.
Occasionally, rhino horns are moved via containerised shipping at sea, but always in the context of being part of a larger illegal consignment of elephant ivory.
The report notes that while significant sums of money are being earmarked for anti-poaching efforts, greater emphasis should be placed on training specialised intelligence units focusing on disrupting the organised crime networks, by identifying key individuals and financial flow.
“Monitoring of judiciary performance is critical, if arrests are to result in convictions and deterrent sentencing as currently the courts are undermining any advance in terms of better investigation and arrests,” the report recommended.