Rhino horn hoard seized in Hong Kong could expose traffickers

Posted: 21 November 2011

Hong Kong Customs have seized a hoard of 33 rhino horns, 758 ivory chopsticks and 127 ivory bracelets concealed inside a container shipped to Hong Kong from Cape Town, South Africa.

The seizure provides a unique opportunity to gain insights into the criminal syndicates involved, which are trafficking wildlife goods between Africa and Asia, says TRAFFIC, the wildlife monitory network.

The South African Department of Environmental Affairs has asked the Hong Kong authorities to send DNA samples of the seized goods to the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria in South Africa for examination.

Rhino horn seizure
Forensic analysis of the 33 rhino horns and 885 ivory pieces seized in Hong Kong could provide vital clues as to their origin. Photo © Hong Kong Customs & Excise

If the horn samples can be matched with records in the rhino DNA database it may be possible to identify the individual animals that were poached for their horns. "Such an effort could yield major clues about who is behind this consignment," said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s rhino expert.

Largest hoard

This is the largest rhino horn seizure made in the current poaching crisis. Viet Nam is considered the pre-eminent contemporary market for rhino horn in Asia, and authorities in Viet Nam have previously seized rhino horn transported from Hong Kong by air, but the scale and method of transport suggest the shipment may have been destined elsewhere.

"The fact worked ivory was also present suggests the 33 rhino horns were likely destined for the greater Chinese market,” Milliken added. "That’s a very worrying development given the scale of this seizure, and an important indication that the Chinese market is becoming an active phenomenon in rhino horn trafficking."
No arrests have so far been made, although authorities in Hong Kong have confirmed the horns are genuine and say investigations are ongoing.

Big fines

Under Hong Kong’s Import and Export Ordinance, any person found guilty of importing unmanifested cargoes is liable to a maximum fine of HKD2 million (USD257,000) and imprisonment for seven years.

In addition, under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance, any person found guilty of importing endangered species for commercial purposes is liable to a maximum fine of HKD5 million (USD642,000) and imprisonment for two years.

“This case highlights the need for South African Port Authorities to invest in scanning equipment and up their game in terms of surveillance of the country’s export cargo,” says Markus Burgener of TRAFFIC’s fisheries programme. The port of Cape Town is also a major conduit for illegal shipments of abalone to Hong Kong.