This is the largest seizure of illicit wildlife products in Mozambican history. The haul consisted of 340 elephant tusks, weighing 1,160 kilos, and 65 rhino horns, weighing 124 kilos. The criminal gang involved in this trafficking had thus killed 170 elephants and 65 rhinos.
The operation culminating in the seizure involved 20 offices from various branches of the police and a team from the forestry and wild life department of the Ministry of Agriculture.
According to the spokesperson for the Maputo provincial police command, Emidio Mabunda, “some of the tusks still have fresh blood, a sign that some of animals could have been killed recently.
The police arrested a Chinese citizen who seemed to be living alone in the house. His name was not released. The police hope he will lead them to other members of the trafficking ring.
Last year the price of rhino horn was estimated at 60,000 US dollar a kilo – much more than the price of gold or of cocaine. Ivory is cheaper, but its price in China has soared – from about 700 dollars a kilo in 2010 to 2,100 dollars a kilo in 2014. So the ivory and rhino horn seized in Matola has a street value of over 6.3 million dollars.
Since both species of African rhinoceros, the black and the white, are believed to be extinct in southern Mozambique, the 65 horns seized in Matola almost certainly come from animals slaughtered in South Africa, probably in the Kruger National Park.
South Africa has the largest rhinoceros population in the world, but it is being severely hit by poaching. Last year, a record was set when 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa, but that figure could well be exceeded this year.
Between January and April the poaching gangs killed 393 South African rhinos, an 18 per cent increase on the same period in 2014.
As for the tusks, they could come either from Mozambican or South African animals, or possibly from further afield.
The police say the criminals were preparing to smuggle the ivory and horns out of the country. It is not yet clear how they planned to move such a large amount.
Last week, Attorney-General Beatriz Buchili, in her report to parliament on justice and crime in 2014, said that 75 investigations into poaching were begun, 57 people were charged, and 23 cases came to trial.
She gave details of just one case, in which three foreigners (whose nationalities were not revealed) were arrested in Inhambane province in possession of two rhino horns in February 2014. They were each given the extraordinarily lenient sentence of a 200,000 metical fine (slightly less than 6,000 dollars).
Prominent environmental activist Carlos Serra urged the authorities to incinerate the ivory and rhino horns. “It should be destroyed”, he declared, “sending a message to the world that this country is really committed to this matter, and that we are shifting to another level of intervention in the fight against poaching and the illegal slaughter of these animals”.
Incineration would also avoid the risk that the ivory and the horns would fall into the wrong hands. If they were just left in warehouses, “the risk that they will be stolen is very high”, warned Serra.