It is a ubiquitous item for tourists to carry when travelling out of South Africa. Plastic bags that contain long strips of dried meat or game known locally as biltong. You can buy it almost anywhere and many visitors bring it home as a souvenir.
Until now it was an innocent and delicious gift, but a new Al Jazeera investigation reveals that it is connected to a smuggling technique employed by wildlife traffickers. They use packets of biltong to sneak rhino horn out of the country.
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It is just one of many smuggling techniques revealed by a new Al Jazeera Investigation into the illicit trade. The programme, The Poacher’s Pipeline, tracks the movement of rhino horn from the kill in Africa to the sale in Asia.
As part of the undercover investigation, a restaurant owner and middle man based in Johannesburg revealed the technique. The horn is cut into strips and placed in the middle of bags of biltong. Then, using a friendly butcher contact, the package is vacuum sealed and labelled as a commercially purchased bag of biltong. When smugglers leave the airport they can easily bypass customs officials. At the other end the rhino horn can be ground into powder and easily resold.
‘I think he is a princeling’
Other traffickers use high-level contacts at airports in both Africa and Asia to circumvent the authorities. One trafficker featured in the film, who is based in Nelspruit, South Africa, claims that he uses a high-level contact at Beijing airport to smuggle in the horn.
“You pay the customs declaration before you fly directly back to China. Get the luggage number and you send it to our Beijing contact. You don’t even need to pick up your luggage,” explains the trafficker in a conversation recorded on hidden camera.
“He’s quite influential at the airport. I think he is a princeling, from a powerful family. He’s untouchable.”
Rhino horn often has a terrible smell associated with it. In order to confirm that the horn is authentic traffickers prefer to have some of the rhino flesh still attached when they make a buy. As a result traffickers try to mask the smell.
“What they do is try and put it into boiling water to get the old meat off,” says Joe Van Der Walt, the chief of operations for Focus Africa, a risk-management firm that focuses on wildlife trafficking. “They then will make a garlic paste and slather it over the horn, wrap it in tin foil and try to throw the dogs off the scent.”
Another way in which rhino horn can be smuggled out of the country is through the diplomatic pouch. When delegations are travelling on official business they can use the cover of diplomacy to hide the horn.
“Government officials in Africa are unlikely to allow police officials to search the bags of Chinese or Vietnamese diplomats,” explains Julian Rademeyer, an analyst with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
Rademeyer has documented dozens of examples in which embassies and government officials have been connected to rhino horn smuggling. In many instances diplomats bring home rhino horn as a status symbol.
In one instance a car that was previously owned by the Vietnamese embassy in South Africa, had a special compartment installed in the back to hide rhino horn.
“It’s essentially the perfect crime,” explains Rademeyer. “You have a diplomatic bag that can’t be opened, it can’t be searched. No prosecution at all.”