Windhoek — An investigation is being conducted into how and why security personnel at Hosea Kutako International Airport (HKIA) allowed 28-year-old Zhiwei Ye, a Chinese national, to board a plane to Hong Kong via Johannesburg after rhino horns were detected in his luggage.
In a damning revelation by the Namibian Airports Company (NAC), it emerged last week that the airport scanner detected the rhino horns in Ye’s luggage, but the security personnel appeared to have allowed the passenger to board the plane.
“The NAC can confirm the incident and after engagement with our stakeholders in the matter it has been confirmed that the passenger was in transit at HKIA and investigations have also revealed that the illegal rhino horns were detected by the scanners in the passenger transit screening area.
“To this end, follow-up investigations are underway to determine why and how the passenger was allowed to proceed,” NAC marketing officer Dan Kamati said on Friday.
He further said an investigation is being carried out by agencies involved in aviation security and the public will be informed of the outcome in due course.
The suspect, who appeared before the Kempton Park Magistrate’s Courts in South Africa on Friday, is charged with smuggling 18 rhino horns, weighing 43 kilograms, worth more R6.6 million.
He somehow smuggled the contraband through a security checkpoint at HKIA, only to be arrested hours later at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The suspect, who left Namibia at around 06h40 on Friday, was bound for Hong Kong at the time of his arrest. The SA police confirmed on Thursday that a Chinese national was arrested at OR Tambo Airport after rhino horns were found in his luggage. They said members of that country’s directorate for priority crime investigations – the Hawks – received a tip-off at the airport and investigated the matter.
It is not known at this stage whether the 18 horns are related to the seven fresh rhino carcasses believed to have been poached this month at Etosha National Park, which is supposed to be heavily guarded by armed police officers.
“The 28-year-old male, who was in transit from Namibia, was about to board a South African Airways flight to Hong Kong on Wednesday afternoon when he was stopped and searched,” the SA police stated.
“Upon the search, police recovered 18 rhino horns inside his luggage weighing 43kg with an estimated value of R6.6 million,” they further said.
The inspector general of the Namibian police and Interpol’s vice-president for Africa, Lieutenant-General Sebastian Ndeitunga, was last week still hesitant to divulge any detailed information surrounding the latest installment of the ongoing rhino horn smuggling saga that has had the general public and environmentalists on tenterhooks.
Members of the public are suspicious and many are asking how a suitcase full of rhino horns worth millions of dollars was detected through the scanners but the security officials failed to detain the suspect at HKIA.
“I’m busy investigating. I don’t have an answer right now. I’m just really busy investigating this whole saga. I know everything, but I don’t want to release any other information.
“We’re investigating first to determine if these are Namibia horns and how the whole issue happened. But we know of recent there were a number of rhinos that were poached in Etosha. That’s why we’re investigating how it all happened,” Ndeitunga said briefly.
Asked if they are working with their South African counterparts, Ndeitunga said: “We’re working together with the South African police. We have a good working relation with them. That’s what we are doing now and it’s really premature to say anything.”
On Wednesday Ministry of Environment and Tourism spokesperson Romeo Muyunda announced that during the month of November alone, rhinos seven carcasses were detected in Etosha National Park, where they were likely poached. This brought to 47 the total recorded number of rhinos poached in Namibia this year.
With regard to elephant poaching, Muyunda said 69 elephants have been killed this year, mainly in the Zambezi and Kavango East Regions.
“Wildlife trafficking is becoming a million dollar criminal enterprise that has expanded to more than just a conservation concern. The increasing involvement of organised crime in poaching and wildlife trafficking promotes corruption, threatens peace, strengthens illicit trade routes, destabilises economies and communities that depend on wildlife on their livelihoods,” he noted.
Muyunda said investigations on the carcasses discovered by the Namibian police and the ministry are ongoing and urged anyone with information about the recent poaching incidents to report to the police or ministry. There is a N$60 000 reward on offer.