JOHANNESBURG – In a nighttime theft, robbers broke into a South African provincial parks office with a 24-hour security service and used a machine tool called a grinder to break into a safe holding a stockpile of rhino horn worth a fortune on the illegal market in parts of Asia.
The weekend heist in the northeastern city of Nelspruit was a blow to efforts to curb the clandestine trade in rhino horn, which has surged in recent years despite an increase in funding for anti-poaching efforts in South Africa, home to the majority of the world's rhinos. On Tuesday, forensic investigators from the police analyzed the crime scene at the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, and officials were exploring the theory that it was an inside job.
"It's too early to be ruling out that possibility," said Capt. Paul Ramaloko of a South African investigative police unit called the Hawks. "We are approaching the investigation with an open mind."
The robbery occurred Saturday night, Ramaloko said. The parks agency later said in a statement that 112 "pieces of rhino horns" weighing a total of about 80 kilograms were taken, and that security staff discovered the break-in early Monday morning.
According to some estimates, a kilogram of rhino horn has a street value in a consumer country of tens of thousands of dollars, meaning that the haul in Mpumalanga could be worth several million dollars to illicit traders.
The thieves targeted a safe where the parks agency of Mpumalanga province keeps some rhino horn stock temporarily for registration before transporting it to "another undisclosed location" for longer-term storage, said Kholofelo Nkambule, an agency spokeswoman.
Officials had photographed, taken DNA samples and installed microchips in some of the stolen rhino horn pieces, while others were being processed, according to the parks agency. It said the perimeter of the office is "well secured with controlled access and 24-hour security personnel" who regularly patrol the premises.
Government agencies and some private game reserves keep stockpiles of rhino horns, including some confiscated from poachers and others shaved off rhinos in an attempt to deter attacks. But the heist in Nelspruit raised concern about the security of those stashes in South Africa, which is considering whether to propose a regulated trade in rhino horn in order to curb poaching. Legalization would require the approval of CITES, the international body that monitors endangered species and will meet in South Africa in 2016.
Last year, 66 rhino horns worth several million dollars on the illegal market were stolen from a private wildlife reserve in South Africa's Limpopo province, according to local media. In that case thieves reportedly used a blowtorch to break into a safe where the horns were kept.
Rhino horn is viewed as a status symbol and a healing agent for serious illness by some Vietnamese and Chinese. There is no evidence that the horn, made from the same material as fingernails, is an effective medicine.
South Africa lost a record 1,004 of the animals to poachers in 2013, and the government said last week that 294 rhinos have been poached so far this year. At the current rate, the toll for 2014 could exceed that of last year, and conservationists warn that a "tipping point" could come in 2016 when rhino deaths exceed births and the population goes into decline.
Well over half of South Africa's poached rhinos are killed in Kruger National Park, a vast wildlife reserve near Nelspruit where a ranger force backed by some South African military units daily struggles to curb armed intruders, many of whom cross from neighboring Mozambique and hunt rhinos before scooting back across the border.
Much of the international funding for anti-poaching is going to Kruger park, which is overseen by South Africa's national parks service. Smaller conservation operations such as the one run by Mpumalanga province are struggling for resources, said Brian Morris, a senior manager at the province's tourism and parks agency.
Morris said the province recently bought a small airplane to monitor its parks, and has earmarked funds to pay a pilot in this year's budget. Mpumalanga urgently needs a helicopter which is a more effective means of deploying rangers, Morris said. He is concerned that poachers could focus more on the province's parks if they come under more pressure from rangers in nearby Kruger park, part of which lies in Mpumalanga province.
"These guys are going to look for other places," he said. "We're like sitting ducks."