How the UK was dragged into the international network of rhino horn smugglers

“It’s a fallacy to think that Europe and the UK are not implicated in this.” 

NS

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On 5 March 2017, a four-year-old white rhino by the name of Vince was shot three times in the head at a zoo near Paris. Then his horn was sliced off with a chainsaw. It was the first reported incident of its kind to take place in Europe and a reminder of the lengths that poachers are willing to go in order to obtain rhino horn, which is reputed to fetches higher price on the black market than its weight in gold.

“The illegal wildlife trade has grown substantially in recent years, despite considerable international efforts, and poaching rates for many species are still increasing to feed the growing criminal demand,” said chair of United for Wildlife’s Financial Taskforce William Hague last week."Traffickers are brazenly exploiting global financial systems to move the proceeds of their crimes, remaining under the radar of investigation and law enforcement.” Three of the five rhino species are listed as critically endangered and face an “extremely high” extinction risk in the wild. More than 1,100 rhinos were killed in Africa last year, compared to 60 in 2006 – 18 times as many, in other words.  

According to Save the Rhino: “Sophisticated criminal networks use a wide variety of methods to traffic illegal rhino horn to consumer countries, often routing it through EU countries.” The charity released a report last week detailing “worrying loopholes” that are leaving the UK open to exploitation from traffickers. Understanding the problem involves tracing the demand for rhino horn and its trafficking though complex criminal networks, from which the UK is not exempt.

Current British law states  that it is only legal to sell ”worked” – altered from its original state – rhino horn dating from before 1947, but there is no requirement for sellers to actually prove the age or provenance of items that are listed for sale. Save the Rhino claims there is a “growing body of evidence” to suggest that some modern rhino horn is being “passed off” as antiques. Some 89 per cent of Rhino horn antique items for sale in the UK last year were without “detailed” provenance and 25 per were without any age estimate at all, it claims.  

Rhino horns are coming under renewed demand from the Far East, particularly in Vietnam and China where they are used in traditional medicines and have connotations with historical rituals. “Trading destinations in Asia have actually right or have at least been major consumers of rhino horn at one time,” says Dr Richard Thomas at wildlife trade specialists Traffic. “Japan, Taiwan and Yemen have all at various stages in their national development gone through a phase where rhino horn has been used. We’re basically seeing that cycle repeated to Vietnam.”

Thomas points to a popular rumour in Vietnam from the early 2000s that rhino horn was used to cure the cancer of a former politician, a rumour that is still circulating today. Horn is not widely recognised as a medicine by international medical journals – it is “better to take an aspirin,” Thomas says – but the strength of tradition, along with its associations with wealth and power have retained its allure. This has been exacerbated by the rise in the region’s super rich. Between 2007 and 2017, Vietnamese and Chinese wealth grew by 210 and 198 per cent respectively, faster than any other nations during that period. 

“We’ve profiled the typical consumer as being a wealthy businessman in their late forties, keen to show [rhino horn] off,” adds Thomas.

Horn smuggling has become increasingly complex as international scrutiny has intensified. Roughly 80 per cent of the world’s rhinos are found in South Africa, which lifted its domestic trade ban on the rhino horn market last year. (The country’s constitutional court overturned the ban after breeders successfully argued that legalising the trade would prevent the widespread number of killings, as horns could be sawn from anaesthetised rhinos.)

International trade in rhino horns is enforced by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but trafficking remains rife: South Africa's environment minister Edna Molewa said 21 government officials were arrested for crimes related to poaching in 2017. A Traffic report found that between 2010 and June 2017, over five tonnes of rhino horn was seized by global law enforcement agencies. It compares with an estimated 37.04 tonnes officially reported to have been killed by poachers in Africa between 2010 and 2016 that it says are ”doubtless”entering the illegal trade. In other words, nearly 90 per cent of rhino horn is circulating in the international black market. 

“We know from the analysis […] that criminals are no longer moving rhino horns straight from Johannesburg to Vietnam for example because those are the shipments that are searched the most carefully,” says Cathy Dean, chief executive of Save the Rhino. Shipments are now being routed through countries, often involving the new routes where staff are “not so clued up with what to look for and what the tell-tale signs are”.

This is where the UK comes in. “It’s a fallacy to think that Europe and the UK are not implicated in this,” says Dean. “In fact, there have been various reports saying that the UK is one of the top ten hubs for illegal wildlife trade in the world. It’s partly because Heathrow is such an international airport. Millions of passengers change planes in Heathrow every year, and therefore so does their luggage.”

Out of the 242 lots containing rhino sold last year at UK auctions, Save the Rhino found that 84 were sold for less than £200, much less than the “grind-down” (powdered horn) value on the black market. At a median sale price of £400, it says that the majority of the sold horns that it surveyed are “vulnerable as a cheap source of supply for the illegal, commercial trade in powdered rhino horn”.

At last week’s Illegal Wildlife Trade in London, more than 50 governments adopted a declaration that committed to “recognise” and “build urgent collective action” to tackle the illegal wildlife trade (IWT). More than 30 financial institutions signed a separate declaration last week backed by the Duke of Cambridge, agreeing that they "will not knowingly facilitate or tolerate financial flows that are derived IWT and associated corruption".

This, for Dean from Save the Rhino, is among the most effective ways that the UK is dealing with the problem, because it follows the “value” of the trafficked horn. “It’s a bit like Al Capone [where you] might not be able do them for murder, but can do them for tax evasion,” she says. Save the Rhino recommends a “lifetime passport” system to be implemented on every horn antique that is placed for sale, specifying the provenance of the item and including a certification of age-testing. 

A total ban on horn is unrealistic because too much of it is in circulation: the material can be found carved into antiques and in walking sticks that are considered objects of significant artistic value. “Certainly if you look at […] the history of the British Empire, literally tonnes of the stuff was imported,” says Thomas.

For laundering in the UK to be prevented altogether, however, more consultation with stakeholders, from antique dealers to NGOs is needed. “We need other brains to come in with different viewpoints to think about how any trade of rhino horn in the UK is squeaky clean,“ says Dean. “That’s what we want to get to, not to stop it completely.” To be sure that the sale of rhino horn in the UK has no link to the illegal poaching, the domestic system must change. Only then will the Al Capones of the poaching world cease to be untouchable.