Johannesburg’s bustling O. R. Tambo International Airport is an easy place to get lost in a crowd, and that’s just what a 29-year-old Vietnamese man named Xuan Hoang was hoping to do one day in March last year—just lie low until he could board his flight home. The police dog sniffing the line of passengers didn’t worry him; he’d checked his baggage through to Ho Chi Minh City. But behind the scenes, police were also using X-ray scanners on luggage checked to Vietnam, believed to be the epicenter of a new war on rhinos. And when Hoang’s bag appeared on the screen, they saw the unmistakable shape of rhinoceros horns—six of them, weighing more than 35 pounds and worth up to $500,000 on the black market.
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Investigators suspected the contraband might be linked to a poaching incident a few days earlier on a game farm in Limpopo Province, on South Africa’s northern border. “We have learned over time, as soon as a rhino goes down, in the next two or three days the horns will leave the country,” Col. Johan Jooste of South Africa’s national priority crime unit told me when I interviewed him in Pretoria.
The Limpopo rhinos had been killed in a “chemical poaching,” meaning that hunters, probably in a helicopter, had shot them using darts loaded with an overdose of veterinary tranquilizers.
The involvement of sophisticated criminal syndicates has soared along with the price of rhino horn, said Jooste, a short, thickly built bull of a man. “The couriers are like drug mules, specifically recruited to come into South Africa on holiday. All they know is that they need to pack for one or two days. They come in here with minimal contact details, sometimes with just a mobile phone, and they meet with guys providing the horns. They discard the phone so there’s no way to trace it to any other people.”
South African courts often require police to connect the horns to a specific poaching incident. “In the past,” said Jooste, “we needed to physically fit a horn on a skull to see if we had a match. But that was not always possible, because we didn’t have the skull, or it was cut too cleanly.”
Police sent the horns confiscated at the airport to Cindy Harper, head of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria. Getting a match with DNA profiling had never worked in the past. Rhino horn consists of a substance like a horse’s hoof, and conventional wisdom said it did not contain the type of DNA needed for individual identifications. But Harper had recently proved otherwise. In her lab a technician applied a drill to each horn to obtain tissue samples, which were then pulverized, liquefied and analyzed in what looked like a battery of fax machines.
Two of the horns turned out to match the animals poached on the Limpopo game farm. The odds of another rhino having the same DNA sequence were one in millions, according to Harper. On a continent with only about 25,000 rhinos, that constituted foolproof evidence. A few months later, a judge sentenced Hoang to ten years in prison—the first criminal conviction using DNA fingerprinting of rhino horn.
It was a rare victory in a rapidly escalating fight to save the rhinoceros. Rhino poaching had once been epidemic in Africa, with tens of thousands of animals slaughtered and whole countries stripped of the animals, largely to obtain horns used for traditional medicines in Asia and dagger handles in the Middle East. But in the 1990s, under strong international pressure, China removed rhino horn from the list of traditional medicine ingredients approved for commercial manufacturing, and Arab countries began to promote synthetic dagger handles. At the same time, African nations bolstered their protective measures, and the combined effort seemed to reduce poaching to a tolerable minimum.
That changed in 2008, when rhino horn suddenly began to command prices beyond anyone’s wildest imagining. The prospect of instant riches has driven a global frenzy: Police in Europe have reported more than 30 thefts of rhino horn this year from museums, auction houses and antiques dealerships.
Most of the poaching takes place in South Africa, where the very system that helped build up the world’s largest rhino population is now making those same animals more vulnerable. Legal trophy hunting, supposedly under strict environmental limits, has been a key part of rhino management: The hunter pays a fee, which can be $45,000 or more to kill a white rhino. The fees give game farmers an incentive to breed rhinos and keep them on their property.