S. Africa wants to take rhino DNA samples

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 November, 2011, 12:00am


South Africa wants to send officials to Hong Kong to help investigate the city's largest seizure of rhino horns.

Pretoria had approached Beijing, seeking permission to send experts from the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, as well as law enforcement officers.

The environment officials would obtain DNA samples from the rhino horns, to compare with samples in the department's database taken from poached rhinos, allowing them to trace where the horns originated.

The approach was made to the Ministry of Environmental Protection in Beijing through the two countries' agreement under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

'Since we have had this agreement with China, we never had any discovery of this nature,' Albi Modise, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Affairs in Pretoria, said. 'We need to be in Hong Kong as soon as possible so we can nip this whole thing in the bud.'

The Rhino DNA Index System - or RhODIS, developed at the University of Pretoria - is one of the efforts South Africa has put in place to combat poaching, with the government trying to make DNA registration of live rhinos an official regulation.

South Africa also wants to send law enforcement officials to look into the transnational crime, which has already been reported to the world police agency Interpol.

The 86.5kg of rhino horns worth HK$17.4 million, intercepted on Monday, was the biggest such seizure Hong Kong has seen. Customs officers discovered the 33 horns, 758 ivory chopsticks and 127 ivory bracelets stashed among 63 packages labelled scrap plastic aboard a cargo ship from Cape Town.

Importing endangered species for commercial purposes can lead to a fine of up to HK$5 million and two years in prison, while importing unmanifested cargoes carries a HK$2 million fine and imprisonment for seven years.

No one was arrested in connection with the case and officers did not disclose the container's final destination, though they said the haul was probably intended to be shipped to other parts of Asia.

The record haul in Hong Kong comes in a year where rhino poaching in South Africa has hit a record high, with 366 of the beasts killed, surpassing last year's then-record high of 333. Four years ago, the total was only 13. Meanwhile, 199 suspected rhino poachers have been arrested in South Africa this year.

Last week the West African black rhino was officially declared extinct, in the same year that Vietnam's Javan rhino population has officially been declared wiped out. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists three of the five species of rhinoceros as 'critically endangered'. According to WWF, the worldwide population of rhinos has dropped over 90 per cent since 1970 to 16,000.

According to Richard Thomas, spokesman for the NGO TRAFFIC, Vietnam is the primary market for rhino horn in the region, but the presence of ivory chopsticks and bracelets suggests this record shipment may have been bound for mainland China, with the horns to be ground up for use in traditional medicine.


The weight of the haul of rhinoceros horns found by customs officers last week

- Hong Kong's previous record was 16.9kg