Mozambique burns world’s largest rhino horn seizure


Adam Vaughn, The Guardian

Date Published
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Mozambique burned the world’s largest ever seizure of rhino horn on Monday in what ministers and officials said was a demonstration of their commitment to tackle poaching.

The largely symbolic destruction of 193.5kg of horn and 2,434.6kg of ivory came as neighbouring Zimbabwe confirmed that around 20 elephants it captured from a national park had been exported to China despite pleas from conservationists to release them.

Mozambique has become a hotspot for Africa’s wildlife poaching crisis, losing nearly half its elephants to the illegal trade in the past five years. It has no rhino of its own, but is known as a hub used by the trade to export horn from South Africa – where a record 1,215 rhino were killed last year – to markets in Asia.

In May, police seized 1,160kg of ivory and 124kg of rhino horn, the biggest haul of rhino horn anywhere. But 12 of the 65 horns were later stolen from a police warehouse, leading to the arrests of four policemen.

The burning of the seizure and the entire Maputo stockpile in the capital today follows Mozambique signing a Prince Charles-backed ‘London Declaration’ to tackle the wildlife trade, which is worth up to £12bn globally. 

“Today sends a signal,” said Celso Correia, minister for land, environment and rural development. “Mozambique will not tolerate poachers, traffickers and the organised criminals which employ and pay them to kill our wildlife and threaten our communities.”

Dr Bartolomeu Soto, director general of the National Conservation Areas Authority, said: “This event demonstrates the Republic’s commitment to protecting its natural resources, and its zero-tolerance to poaching, trafficking and to the organised criminals behind this.”

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which helped fund the event, said Mozambique was making a stand. “Recent efforts show real commitment to tackle wildlife crime , associated corruption and organised crime gangs,” said Alastair Nelson, WCS’s country director for Mozambique. 

However, WWF said that while the burn sent a positive signal of Mozambique’s determination to tackle wildlife crime, it was concerned that evidence connected to the thefts had been destroyed.

Heather Sohl, chief advisor of species at WWF UK, said: “WWF is concerned about Mozambique’s sudden decision to destroy this sizeable haul of ivory and rhino horns, because it is likely that critical evidence has been destroyed.”

Wildlife trade monitors Traffic raised similar concerns regarding the ivory thefts and potential loss of evidence. “The apparent destruction of evidence in ongoing cases raises obvious concerns over how the legal process will now be properly followed in Mozambique,” said the organisation’s Tom Milliken.

The event in Maputo on Monday follows several other similar destructions of seized ivory, most recently the crushing of 907kg of ivory in Times Square, New York. More than 20,000 elephants are poached each year in Africa, driven largely by demand from a growing middle class in China and other south-east Asian countries.

Monday also saw Thai authorities announce they had seized 250kg of ivory enroute from Congo to Laos, in two crates marked “marble pieces”.

In Zimbabwe, the wildlife minister, Saviour Kasukuwere, defended the airlift of the elephants from Harare to a safari park in Guangzhou, saying they would be “better off” because the government’s national parks authority was short on funds. The export of the elephants is legal and allowed under the wildlife trade convention, Cites.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare said it was “sickened” that the elephants, which included several calves that were reportedly separated from their mothers, had been sold despite pleas to release them back into the wild. Over 70,000 people signed a petition against the move.

Jason Bell, director of IFAW Southern Africa, said: “Given the spiralling poaching crisis and ongoing loss of habitat battering elephant populations around the world, unnecessarily seizing wild elephants for a lifetime in captivity is a violation of conservation principles and shows a blatant disregard for animal welfare.”