Two men attempted to smuggle $1 million worth of severed rhino horns through airport customs in Hong Kong last week. The contraband the two suspects, aged 28 and 33, hauled accounted for 20 percent of the total seizures of rhino horns in Hong Kong since 2013, according to a local environmental group. The 24 lumps of keratin, which are not much different than the protein found in hair and fingernails, were packed into cardboard boxes and weighed 40 kilograms (88 pounds). This makes it the largest seizure of rhino horn destined for an airline flight from the territory.
The news comes weeks after Hong Kong seized 8 tonnes of pangolin scales and over 1,000 ivory tusks.
The men arrived from Johannesburg, South Africa, and were planning to transit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. This region and China are the top consumer black markets for rhino horns, where they are often ground into powder and sold as a wonder cure for everything from cancer to hangovers – a flawed belief based on no scientific evidence whatsoever.
More than two rhinos per day are illegally killed in South Africa, according to TRAFFIC, an NGO on trade in wild animals. Although South Africa has seen a decline in rhino poaching, experts note that law enforcement remains difficult when demand is high in other countries.
“Progress in South Africa will be undermined without appropriate action in consumer countries, including effective law enforcement and actions to reduce the demand for rhino horn that ultimately drives the trade chain,” Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Senior Advisor on Rhino Trade, said in a statement on rhino figures.
In fact, the market for rhino horns within South Africa’s borders is paltry compared to demand from other regions. South Africa is home to about 80 percent of the world’s population and remains the most heavily hit by rhino poaching.
In 2017, South Africa’s DEA lifted a moratorium on the domestic rhino horn market ban after outcry from private rhino ranchers, making it legal to sell the keratin within South Africa. However, all rhino species are listed under CITES Appendix 1, making it illegal to trade the animals internationally.
“To provide a stronger deterrent against the smuggling and illegal trading of endangered species, the penalties under the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance have been increased drastically since May 1, 2018,” read the customs statement.
However, conservation groups are calling on authorities to crack down on illegal wildlife smuggling. China has taken steps to uphold wildlife trafficking measures in recent years, but it’s still big business in the region.