World Rhino Day: Making Headway in the Fight Against Rhino Horn Trafficking

By Olivia Swaak-Goldman

Today, on World Rhino Day, I would like to highlight the threat to rhinos from transnational organised criminal networks and to recognise the progress that has been made in the fight against rhino horn trafficking over the past few years. While rhinos still face a number of threats, there is hope on the horizon.

In October 2022, the Wildlife Justice Commission published a global threat assessment on rhino horn trafficking (referred to as the ‘Rhino Report’) covering a 10 year-period from January 2012 to December 2021. The aim of the report was to produce a comprehensive assessment to inform law enforcement, conservation, and policymakers’ interventions to tackle the illegal rhino horn trade and ensure the global response is commensurate and appropriately targeted to current needs. The report was based on the Wildlife Justice Commission’s investigation findings and intelligence analysis, as well as open-source research.

One of the key recommendations of the Rhino Report was that rhino horn trafficking needs to be addressed as transnational organised crime. The illegal killing of rhinos and trafficking of their horns is a global criminal enterprise, comprising multiple criminal components dominated by greed and the pursuit of substantial profits.

While this remains the case, the criminal dynamics of rhino horn trafficking have continued to evolve in the year following the publication of the Rhino Report. This blog post highlights the latest developments and trends that the Wildlife Justice Commission has observed since the report was issued, with the aim to empower our partners with the latest insights needed to effectively address this pressing issue.

Decline in rhino horn trafficking and seizures

Seizure data has shown a sharp decline in rhino horn seizures globally since 2021. The data speaks for itself: in 2022, authorities seized 485 kg of rhino horn, a notable drop from the 818 kg seized in 2021. In 2023, this downward trend is continuing, with 64 kg seized from illegal trade so far. Intelligence obtained by the Wildlife Justice Commission suggests that trafficking activity has also fallen over the past three years.

The collaborative efforts of organisations such as the Wildlife Justice Commission and law enforcement authorities in key trafficking hotspots, such as Mozambique and Nigeria, seem to be paying off. These endeavours may have contributed to the reduced trafficking by disrupting the ability of facilitators of rhino horn trafficking to work in these countries, while also creating the perception of an increased risk of arrest for those involved. High-profile arrests in Mozambique in 2022, including key rhino poaching coordinators as well as rhino horn suppliers and buyers, have sent a strong message that illegal activities will not go unpunished. Similarly, in Nigeria, the arrest in May 2022 and subsequent conviction of three high-ranking members of one of the largest organised wildlife crime networks are likely to have had a crucial impact, as these significant rhino horn traffickers were taken out of the market while they were held in pre-trial detention for 14 months. These impactful arrests demonstrate the commitment of countries to fight wildlife trafficking.

Sources of rhino horn supply remain steady

Although seizures have declined, rhino poaching statistics indicate a slight increase in poaching across Africa. Approximately 548 rhinos were killed in 2022 (according to reported data so far), compared to 539 in 2021 and 503 in 2020. This suggests that the volume of rhino horns entering the supply chain from poached animals has remained relatively stable over the past three years, with a slight upward trend. However, poaching hotspots have shifted, such as a move away from Kruger National Park to provincial and private reserves in South Africa, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal province. Namibia has also seen an alarming increase, and almost doubling, in poaching rates.

Our Rhino Report highlighted that criminal groups routinely access stockpiles of harvested rhino horns for the illegal trade. Over the past two years, this trend has continued with, for instance, the theft of 51 horns from a vault in the head office of the North West Parks Board in South Africa in June 2023. As recommended in our Rhino Report, in any country with rhino horn stockpiles, domestic violations involving stockpiled horns should not be treated separately from international rhino horn smuggling offences. Given the links between the movement of horn from illegally killed rhinos and harvested horns, these two supply chains should be addressed and managed as a connected threat.

Crime displacement trends

In addition to the displacement of rhino poaching hotspots within South Africa and to Namibia, another concerning trend is the apparent shift toward Angola as the next primary African gateway in the trafficking of rhino horn and ivory to Asia. This shift is evidenced by seizure data and intelligence for late 2022 and early 2023. Effective law enforcement action targeting key crime areas in Mozambique and Nigeria is leading to the displacement of criminal activity to locations with a lower risk of detection. In 2022, approximately 60 kg of rhino horn seized were shipped from Angola, and all cross-border shipments seized in 2023 so far have originated from Angola.

This shift emphasises the need for international cooperation in fighting rhino horn trafficking. As recommended in our Rhino Report, in order to address the persistent problems of rhino poaching and illegal rhino horn trade, all countries affected along the supply chain need to step up their efforts to ensure that wildlife crime is tackled in an effective and enduring manner.Broader and more consistent use of advanced and sophisticated law enforcement practices typically applied in other types of transnational organised crime must be employed to ensure a cohesive and coordinated global response to address rhino horn trafficking and to prevent the displacement of criminal activity from one place to another. 

Trafficking routes and methods

In 2023, rhino horn shipments seized were primarily destined for Vietnam and were discovered concealed in passenger luggage transported on commercial airlines. This could indicate a return to pre-COVID trafficking methods. As noted in our Rhino Report, during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020-2021), there was an increase in large rhino horn shipments moved via air cargo, likely due to travel restrictions limiting the ability of criminal networks to move rhino horn in passenger luggage.

The persistent issue of corruption

Since the creation of the Wildlife Justice Commission in 2015, a constant that has been observed in all intelligence-led investigations into wildlife trafficking across the globe is the role of corruption in enabling this form of organised crime. Corruption facilitates the poaching, transportation, processing, and sale of illegal wildlife products at every step of the global supply chain, from source location to destination market. Rhino poaching and rhino horn trafficking are no exception.

Our recent report about the role of corruption in enabling wildlife crime describes a joint investigation involving the Wildlife Justice Commission and two national law enforcement agencies, in which we uncovered a significant corruption issue within a global rhino horn trafficking network. This case study highlights the pervasive role of corruption in the rhino horn supply chain, from bribing airport personnel and officials at border checkpoints to attempting to secure the release of seized goods through corrupt means.

While some countries are taking important steps to address corrupt behaviour and treat corruption risks, there is a general lack of focus and effort on this critical issue. All countries along the trafficking routes need to take coordinated action to address the insidious corruption that undermines many law enforcement efforts. Corruption risks within the rhino horn supply chain must be addressed to strengthen regulatory systems, alongside an increased investigative focus to remove the corrupt elements enabling crime. The Wildlife Justice Commission will be present at the upcoming Conference of the States Parties to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in December, which will provide the opportunity for policy makers to reaffirm their commitment to fighting corruption facilitating wildlife and other environmental crimes.

Rhino horn trafficking remains a severe problem that needs to be addressed as transnational organised crime. While law enforcement efforts have made headway, the battle for the survival of the rhino is far from over. A collective, international effort, coupled with enhanced use of advanced law enforcement methodologies and a commitment to combat corruption, is essential to safeguard the future of this vulnerable species.

The Wildlife Justice Commission is committed to continue supporting our partners across the globe in their efforts to counter the persistent threat that rhinos face from criminal networks trafficking their horns for profit.