Around 40 rhino horns have been stolen from a South African provincial park safe, in what is thought to be the largest such rhino horn heist in history.
Thieves broke into the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency in the northeastern city of Nelspruit during a night-time raid in late April. The thieves used heavy machinery to break into the safe and stole 112 pieces of rhino horn, weighing around 80kg.
The attack appeared to be well-planned with the thieves specifically targeting the highly valuable rhino horns. According to the Parks’ spokeswomen, Kholofelo Nkambule, ‘Elephant ivory, rifles and ammunition, which were in the same safe, were left untouched’.
According to news reports, most of the rhino horns were from de-horning operations which have been undertaken to deter poachers from killing rhinos. There were also horns from natural mortalities or incidents where rhinos had been killed, but poachers were unable to remove the horns.
The Parks agency said that the safe was used to store some of the rhino horn stock temporarily before transporting it to another location for longer-term storage. Horns were kept on the premises for the purposes of registering and record-keeping, through microchipping and gathering DNA samples.
Forensic investigators and the police analysed the crime scene, with officials exploring theory that it was an inside job. Many have blamed inadequate security measures. No arrests have been made to date. The CEO of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) was controversially suspended shortly after the thefts.
Many private and state organisations have large stores of rhino horn, and this recent theft highlights the high security risk associated with the long-term storage of rhino horns.
Several South African organisations and private individuals are investing heavily in protecting their horns, ahead of South Africa’s proposal to legalise a regulated trade in rhino horn at the next 2016 CITES meeting.
Last year, it was reported that 66 rhino horns were stolen from a private wildlife reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo province. The problem of thefts is not limited to South Africa, with an increasing number of rhino horn thefts from museums, antiques houses and private collections across Europe and worldwide.
The theft of rhino horn stockpiles highlights the question of whether government or private organisations should be destroying stockpiles. Many governments including the US, France. China and the Philippines have recently organised public displays showing the destruction of ivory stockpiles, leading many to question whether the same should be done with all rhino horn stockpiles too.