In a daring heist that has sent shockwaves through conservation circles, four suspects have been apprehended in connection with the audacious theft of 51 precious rhino horns from a stockpile facility in Mahikeng, located in South Africa’s North West Province. The theft, which occurred in June of this year, has highlighted glaring concerns over the security of wildlife resources and the need for robust measures to safeguard these endangered creatures.
The Portfolio Committee on Forestry, Fisheries, and Environment convened to discuss the progress of the investigation into the brazen theft, with representatives from the North West Parks and Tourism Board, the South African Police Services (SAPS), and the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (HAWKS) briefing the committee members. The stolen rhino horns, with an estimated value of R9 million, underscore the pressing need to address the rampant illegal trade in wildlife products.
The heist was discovered when a diligent security officer, patrolling the premises of the North West Parks Board’s Cook Lake on the evening of June 26, 2023, noticed signs of forced entry and damage to alarm and camera systems. Swiftly contacting the SAPS, the security officer’s prompt action triggered an investigation that unearthed a meticulously planned operation.
According to North West Hawks Major-General Patrick Mboto, the investigation team revealed that the criminals had gained access to a small safe containing the keys to the walk-in safe where the rhino horns were stored. The keys were used to unlock the secure storage, emphasizing the level of sophistication and insider knowledge involved in the operation. Despite the progress made in identifying the suspects and bringing them into custody, the stolen rhino horns remain at large.
The suspects are facing a litany of charges, including housebreaking and theft, illegal dealing in rhino horns, possession of stolen property, illegal possession of firearms, and charges related to money laundering, corruption, and racketeering. Major-General Mboto indicated that the charges could evolve as the investigation unfolds. The court date has been set for August 14, 2023, to allow further time for the ongoing investigation. While two of the suspects have been released on bail, the others remain in custody.
The theft has shone a spotlight on the North West Parks and Tourism Board, a state-owned entity tasked with managing protected areas and wildlife populations. Speaking before the committee, Ms. Thami Matshego, the acting CEO of the board, revealed the challenges and efforts in securing the rhino horns. The economic value and demand for rhino horns necessitate stringent security measures, leading to the construction of a specially designed vault at the board’s headquarters.
Despite enhanced security protocols and fortified defenses, the board has faced previous break-in attempts in 2014 and 2018. The incidents underline the tenacity of criminal networks operating in the illegal rhino poaching industry, continually pushing the boundaries of security measures.
Adding a layer of concern, the committee learned that the North West Parks and Tourism Board currently operates without a Board or a permanent CEO. The North West MEC for Economic Development, Environment, Conservation, and Tourism, MEC Khothatso Tlhapi, explained that the process of appointing a new Board is underway, but it is not without its challenges. The Acting CEO is currently holding the reins, with the Board’s appointment expected in the coming month.
Expressing a commitment to proactive oversight, the committee chairperson, Mr. Ntibi Modise, outlined plans for a future visit to Mahikeng to gain deeper insights into the theft incident and to address questions surrounding the absence of a permanent Board and CEO. Mr. Modise emphasized the need to bolster security measures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in other provinces, underscoring the importance of collaboration between national and provincial departments.
As the investigation into the rhino horn theft unfolds, concerns persist over the illicit trade in wildlife products and the security of South Africa’s precious natural resources. The incident serves as a rallying cry for strengthened efforts in safeguarding the country’s endangered species, fortifying security measures, and ensuring the responsible management of wildlife resources.