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Johannesburg (AFP) – South Africa plans to store its stockpile of seized rhino horn at a heavily-secured central location after thieves stole millions-of-dollars worth of horns from a provincial government safe.
The Environmental Affairs ministry told AFP Tuesday it would press ahead with a decision to shift the stocks, after thieves broke into the north-eastern Mpumalanga province tourism agency offices and made off with 80 kilogrammes.
The haul is worth as much as $5.2 million at current black market prices of around $65,000 a kilogramme. The theft had at first been believed to be worth almost three times that.
“We have always been concerned (about) rhino horns that are in the possession of various institutions in the public sector and the levels of security at these sites,” the environment ministry’s spokesman Albi Modise said.
A decision had been made that “all rhino horn in the possession of the provincial authorities be transferred to a centralised and secure location controlled by the state.”
“We will work with all the provinces to ensure that that decision is implemented to halt a possible recurrence of a similar break in other provinces,” said Modise.
The haul from the weekend heist at Mpumalanga province’s tourism agency offices reached a “total 112 pieces of rhino horns”.
An environmental crime investigator walks past the carcass of a three-day-old rhinoceros killed by poachers in the southern part of Kruger National Park on November 27, 2013
It is the largest theft of the prized horns from a public institution, according to police’s specialised crime unit, the Hawks.
Mpumalanga is home to the Kruger National Park and the country’s largest rhino population.
The park has borne the brunt of the worsening rhino poaching in South Africa.
The stolen pieces are “small” horns mainly from dehorning operations at provincial reserves, said the province’s tourism spokeswoman Kholofelo Nkambule.
She said the pieces were still in the process of being registered before being moved to another secure location where a bulk of stock is kept.
Some of the pieces had already been micro chipped and DNA sampled.
Rhino horns are prized as a status symbol in Asia and mistakenly thought to possess medicinal properties to cure cancers and hangovers, even though they are composed of the same material as fingernails.
So far this year some 293 rhinos have been illegally killed in South Africa with nearly half of the attacks occurring in the Kruger Park, despite the deployment of helicopters, troops and rangers to protect them.
The animals are killed by illegal hunters hired and armed by transnational crime syndicates.
South Africa is lobbying for the legalising of the rhino horn trade in an attempt to limit illegal demand, by allowing the sale of horns from rhino that have died of natural causes.