In recent weeks and months there has been multiple reports of foreign nationals being arrested at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg for attempting to smuggle rhino horn out of the country. Such arrests are welcome and it is reassuring to note that the security measures currently in place at South Africa’s ports of entry and exit are indeed functioning, to some degree at least.

The logical next question, however, is to what extent such arrests represent real ‘success’? Whilst there has been at least five significant rhino horn busts at OR Tambo in the last year alone, the common denominator in each instance seems to be the fact that the horns were ‘hidden’ in the smugglers’ luggage.

This is a very crude and amateurish means of attempting to smuggle contraband items out of the country. Particularly given the heightened sensitivities and interest in both the domestic and international trade in rhino horn. As per the terms of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, 2004 (No. 10 of 2004), a permit is required to possess and/or transport rhino horn. Non-compliance is a criminal offence, under the terms of which a person convicted is liable to:

  • a fine not exceeding R10 million, or a fine equal to three times the commercial value of the rhino horn in respect of which the offence was committed, whichever is the greater; or
  • an imprisonment for a period not exceeding 10 years, or
  • both such a fine and such imprisonment.

Clearly, the personal stakes for those involved are very high. Therefore, why take such a significant risk?

Indeed, standard aviation security protocols, implemented in the aftermath of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and reinforced post-9/11, include: screening of checked baggage, baggage reconciliation against passenger manifests, as well as passenger profiling and behavioral analysis. To borrow a tried and tested cliché, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to intercept Chinese and Vietnamese nationals attempting to smuggle rhino horn on flights bound for Hong Kong and other Far East destinations!

Surely, as welcome as such seizures and arrests may be, they are nothing more than a distraction? The tip of the proverbial iceberg? Part and parcel of a well-worn deception plan employed by smugglers for years? Whether by directly alerting authorities to the mules and their cargo, or making said cargo so obvious it would be inconceivable to miss, the authorities are simply being thrown off of the trail of the main shipment?

Given the sheer number of rhino poached in South Africa in the past year alone, there is no other answer. Where are the rest of the horns? And this says nothing of the huge financial rewards at stake. The international poaching syndicates in question are far too organised and professional to risk their lifeblood through such high risk channels. It makes no commercial sense.

The optimist in me does not want to undermine the inherent good news in learning that rhino horn has been prevented from leaving the country, or that those involved have been detained pending prosecution. Especially at a time when there are so many negative statistics emanating from the conservation sector. However, call it cynicism or a sixth sense, one cannot help but approach such ‘success stories’ with extreme caution. The fact of the matter is that we are failing to track and intercept the vast majority of poached rhino horn. Horn that has been brutality hacked from the faces of injured, dying, terrified animals.

And there are only two possible causes for this failure. Either our authorities are a variable mix of incompetent, under-resourced and uninterested; or, the powers that be are wholly complicit in the entire nefarious affair.

Whilst a case for the former scenario can be made (South Africa faces a number of significant institutional shortcomings, it is true), there are simply too many mitigating factors. First and foremost amongst which is the scale of public and international involvement. Indeed, there are myriad individuals and organisations across the country and the world, dedicated to protecting these animals and plugging the capacity shortfalls currently being experienced by the authorities in relation to rhino poaching and smuggling.

Yet, somehow, the horn seems to keep on slipping through the net… Unless, of course, the net has a gapping hole in it and the smuggling gangs are being given a set of directions straight through the centre of it!