Chinese syndicates in SA dodge cops by sawing horns into beads and trinkets for export


White rhinoceros.
White rhinoceros.  Image: CHRISTIAN HARTMANN
Chinese syndicates are setting up small home-based workshops in Johannesburg and elsewhere to chop up rhino horns into smaller pieces, mainly to dodge South African airport and harbour smuggling checks.

To beat tougher security measures, some horns are sawn up with bandsaws and other machines into beads, bracelets and other small trinkets – and in some cases into powder – as part of a new black-market smuggling tactic that has the added advantage of providing ready-made rhino jewellery products for buyers in China, Vietnam and other Eastern nations.

This is according to a new report released on Monday morning by TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network set up by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the WWF.

Former journalist Julian Rademeyer, who is now a TRAFFIC project director, said senior security officials and investigators had confirmed a number of home-based horn workshops had been raided in Germiston and Cyrildene, Johannesburg, recently.

Rademeyer and report co-authors Sade Moneron and Nicola Okes said they had found new evidence that “criminal networks of Chinese origin” operating in South Africa had started to process rhino horns locally into smaller pieces, beads, bangles and rough “discs”.

Colonel Johan Jooste, national commander of the endangered species unit in the Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation, told TRAFFIC: “The methods have changed. Initially, horns were being concealed in wine boxes, or between sweets and clothes, or inside statues and pottery; things like that. Now they’ve learned from arrests that have disrupted their activities that it works out much better for them to work the horn here and then take it out of the country. It makes it much easier to avoid detection.”

Jooste urged security and border officials to be on the lookout for the new modus operandi.

Three months ago a house in Germiston was raided by police who found a workshop where rhino-horn beads were processed and in some cases polished. Others had been cut up into small cylindrical shapes. Two large plastic bags on the premises contained what appeared to be rhino-horn powder and horn shavings. Two Chinese men and a Thai woman were arrested.

In a previous raid in Cyrildene police found a similar bag of rhino-horn powder and offcuts, with ivory bangles, pangolin scales, lion bones and dried seahorses and sea cucumbers.

TRAFFIC spoke to Dr Cindy Harper from the University of Pretoria’s veterinary genetics laboratory, where confiscated rhino horns and products are analysed for DNA to link them to some of more than 7000 rhinos slaughtered by poaching gangs in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent in the past decade.

She confirmed that several balls of rhino horn (used to make necklaces) seemed to have been machine-made, while powdered horn and horn shavings had also been analysed. These were thought to be valuable by-products of the luxury carving process which could still be sold for use in Eastern “health tonics”.

The report also throws new light on the rapidly changing smuggling routes that criminal syndicates are using to move horns from Africa to the East.

“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.

“Over time, more sophisticated methods have emerged; horns disguised as curios and toys, hidden in bags of cashew nuts and wine boxes or concealed in imitation electronic parts.”

Airport routes have also changed. Customs officials, airline staff and airport police are bribed to facilitate luggage switches or provide false documents. In some cases the smugglers fly at peak times to take advantage of the rush, or when airports and harbours are short-staffed.

Known smuggling transit routes previously included the UK and western Europe, whereas there was now growing evidence of horns being shifted more extensively around major African airports, including in Eth-iopia, Kenya, Zaire, Zambia, Mozambique and Namibia.