Hong Kong's recent return of seized ivory and rhino horns to South Africa has been hailed as a turning point that could lead to the successful prosecution of poachers and smugglers.
The return of 33 rhino horns and hundreds of carved ivory items to South Africa last month was the result of a two-year process that began in November 2011 after Hong Kong customs officers X-rayed a shipment of "scrap plastic" and uncovered a record haul of almost 80kg of rhino horn, 758 ivory chopsticks and 127 ivory bracelets.
Last month, a delegation from South Africa came to Hong Kong for a week to finalise the process. The team included Captain Johan Jooste, from the endangered species team of South Africa's serious crime unit, the Hawks; a police forensics specialist; and representatives from the Environmental Affairs Department and the National Prosecuting Authority.
Jooste said yesterday: "It's not just a case of returning the items because the most significant part is that we are now able to use the seized items in our courts as evidence.
"Besides getting the items out of the market, we can learn about smuggling routes and the origin of the rhino horns and ivory."
The horns and ivory are undergoing DNA analysis, with the results expected early next year, to pinpoint where the elephants and rhinos were poached.
"There's a strong Asian market for rhino horn, whether it's for medicinal or other reasons, and it's been escalating, especially in the past year," Jooste said.
South Africa is home to about 90 per cent of the world's rhino population and the number of rhinos poached has increased from 13 in 2007 to 891 so far this year.
Jooste said South Africa was also in talks with other Asian and African nations for the return of seized rhino horns.
The record seizure triggered an immediate investigation in South Africa. A request was sent to Hong Kong justice officials in September 2012 for the return of the seized items under a mutual legal assistance agreement which came into effect in December 2011.
The legal process took another year, with a High Court ruling allowing the rhino horns and ivory to be sent back to South Africa to help in a criminal investigation and possible prosecution.
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department confirmed that it was the first time in 10 years that it had issued reexport licences so that seized rhino horns or elephant ivory could be sent to another country.
Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, welcomed the move, as it could lead to arrests.
Tom Milliken, an elephant and rhino expert with wildlife non-governmental organisation Traffic, said: "We are delighted that DNA analysis of the largest consignment of South African rhino horns ever seized in Asia is finally going to happen. It's taken over two years for this exchange to transpire so it's a hallelujah moment."