“As of yesterday (Tuesday), a total of 515 rhino have been killed so far this year,” said the environment ministry’s deputy director general Fundisile Mketeni.
The lucrative Asian black market for rhino horn has driven a boom in poaching in South Africa, which has the largest rhino population in the world. Many of the killings are thought to be perpetrated by poachers from global syndicates.
On Tuesday Czech authorities charged 16 people from a gang that sent registered hunters to South Africa who returned with horns that were to be sent on to Asian countries.
Customs officers seized 24 rhino horns, worth an estimated 3.9 million euros ($5.1 million).
Last year, 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa, a record high that could be surpassed if the poaching continues at today’s pace.
Czech Customs Seize Rhino Horns, 16 People Charged
“Our investigation showed that the transport is organized by an international ring of smugglers who have used fake export permissions seemingly complying with (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to import the rhinoceros horns from the Republic of South Africa to the European Union,” said Jiri Bartak, spokesman for the Czech customs department.
The arrests follow an investigation by Czech and EU customs authorities begun in 2011.
The gang was alleged to have planned re-exporting the horns as trophies, according to their fake documentation.
Rhino horns are popular in parts of Asia where many believe they can cure various illnesses or work as an aphrodisiac.
Czech authorities estimate the value of the seized rhino horns at up to 100 million koruna ($5 million), Mr. Bartak said.
The authorities said the ring employed people impersonating hunters to gain permission to ship horns acquired from African poachers to Europe and elsewhere.
Czech customs didn’t release details of where the charged individuals came from or give their names. If convicted they face up to eight years in prison.