It remains a mystery how a Chinese national managed to smuggle 18 rhino horns, weighing 43 kilograms, through a tight security checkpoint on Wednesday at Hosea Kutako International Airport, only to be arrested hours later at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The 28-year-old Chinese national who left Hosea Kutako International Airport at around 06h40 was bound for Hong Kong at the time of his arrest.
The South African police confirmed yesterday that a Chinese national was arrested at OR Tambo Airport after rhino horns worth more R6.6 million were found in his luggage.
It is not known at this stage whether the 18 horns are related to the seven fresh rhino carcasses believed to have been poached this month at Etosha National Park, which is supposed to be heavily guarded by armed police officers.
The SA police said members of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation – the Hawks – received a tip-off at the airport and investigated the matter.
“The 28-year-old male, who was in transit from Namibia, was about to board a South African Airways flight to Hong Kong on Wednesday afternoon when he was stopped and searched,” the South African police stated.
“Upon the search, police recovered 18 rhino horns inside his luggage weighing 43kg with an estimated value of R6.6 million,” they further said. The suspect is expected to appear in the Kempton Park Magistrate’s Court today.
Contacted for comment yesterday, the inspector general of the Namibian police and Interpol’s vice-president for Africa, Lieutenant-General Sebastian Ndeitunga, was hesitant to divulge information surrounding the latest installment of the ongoing rhino horn smuggling saga.
Members of the public are suspicious and many are asking how a suitcase full of rhino horns worth millions of dollars could slip through the scanners and the watchful eyes of the security officials at Hosea Kutako International Airport when these same officials have without hesitation seized bottles of 100 milligrams of lotion and toothpaste from travellers.
“I’m busy investigating. I don’t have an answer right now. I’m just really busy investigating this whole saga. I know everything, but I don’t want to release any other information.
“We’re investigating first to determine if these are Namibia horns and how the whole issue happened. But we know of recent there were a number of rhinos that were poached in Etosha. That’s why we’re investigating how it all happened,” Ndeitunga said briefly.
Asked if they are working with their South African counterparts, Ndeitunga said: “We’re working together with the South African police. We have a good working relation with them. That’s what we are doing now and it’s really premature to say anything.”
On Wednesday Ministry of Environment and Tourism spokesperson Romeo Muyunda announced that during the month of November alone, rhinos seven carcasses were detected in Etosha National Park, where they were likely poached. This brought to 47 the total recorded number of rhinos poached in Namibia this year.
With regard to elephant poaching, Muyunda said 69 elephants have been killed this year, mainly in the Zambezi and Kavango East Regions.
“Wildlife trafficking is becoming a million dollar criminal enterprise that has expanded to more than just a conservation concern. The increasing involvement of organised crime in poaching and wildlife trafficking promotes corruption, threatens peace, strengthens illicit trade routes, destabilises economies and communities that depend on wildlife on their livelihoods,” he noted.
Muyunda said investigations on the carcasses discovered by the Namibian police and the ministry continues. He urged anyone with information about the recent poaching incidences to report to the police or ministry officials. There is a N$60 000 reward on offer.
The discovery of a hoard of rhino horns and a leopard skin in March 2014 led to the conviction of four Chinese citizens on two criminal charges in the Windhoek Regional Court in September.
Four Chinese citizens convicted of having tried to smuggle 14 rhinoceros horns and a leopard skin out of Namibia in two suitcases at Hosea Kutako Airport in March 2014 were sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment each at the end of their trial in September.
“The message must be clear to the rest of the community and the international community that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated,” Magistrate Alexis Diergaardt told the four convicted men during their sentencing in the Windhoek Regional Court.
Diergaardt convicted each of the four Chinese nationals on two counts of attempting to export controlled wildlife products after she found that it had been proven that they acted in common purpose when an attempt was made to take two suitcases containing 14 rhino horns and a leopard skin out of Namibia on March 24, 2014.
She also found that the four – Wang Hui (41), Pu Xuexin (51), Li Zhibing (55) and Li Xiaoliang (32) – jointly planned the offences of which they were convicted. Pu and the two Lis were arrested at Hosea Kutako International Airport, where they were set to board a flight out of Namibia in March 2014 after the contents of two suitcases that had been booked on to the flight under the names of the two Lis were detected by police officers. Wang was subsequently arrested and added as an accused to the case of his three compatriots in May last year.
News24 in August reported another Chinese man, 48, who was arrested at OR Tambo International Airport while allegedly trying to board a flight to Hong Kong with R1.5m worth of rhino horns. He allegedly had 10 rhino horns, 84 ornaments and 41 bangles made from rhino horn in his possession when he was caught. He claimed to have acquired the rhino horns from Maputo, Mozambique.