Pulled from the brink of extinction almost a century ago, South Africa's white rhino population is now flourishing thanks to the extensive conservation measures that were put in place. However, their existence is being jeopardised once more due to the dramatic increase in rhino poaching over recent years. During 2008, 57 rhinos were illegally killed country-wide and this increase has been linked to a rising demand for rhino horn in the Far East.
Contrary to popular Western beliefs that rhino horn is considered an aphrodisiac in the Far East, it is actually used in traditional medicine as an anti-rheumatic and anti-inflammatory treatment and more recently rumours have surfaced about its anti-cancer properties.
Rhino horn has become a highly sought after commodity, which people are prepared to pay a lot of money for. Numerous poaching networks and syndicates thrive in this environment. Poachers are often recruited from communities neighbouring protected areas and private game farms. Their poverty makes them an easy target and their bush skills make them a prized asset.
These are the people who are taking the largest risks and are making the least from it as it is not the people at the beginning of the chain that make the money. It is the middle men, the poaching network leaders and exporters in South Africa and the importers of horn in the far Eastern countries who are capitalising on this illegal yet lucrative trade.
Within this environment, the SANParks Environmental Crime Investigation (ECI) Unit, a team of dedicated and skilled individuals, is determined to put an end to poaching. The team comprises a range of experts from infiltration operatives to forensic examiners, communication specialists to expert trackers.
To break up a poaching network takes a huge amount of time and dedication from the team. Many hours are spent both in the field and in the office weaving together the various leads and collating the evidence needed to make an arrest. All this hard work paid off at the end of March this year, when SANParks ECI and the South African Police Service (SAPS) made their largest bust to date. They arrested Asram Cassin, believed to be responsible for moving 80 percent of the rhino horn out of South Africa last year.
Cassin's arrest took months of intricate and meticulous planning. An agent was used who had arranged a sale of three rhino horns, weighing 12kg, with Cassin at his curio shop Just Africa. The agent was then taken back to Cassin's safe house where the horn was weighed and the deal brokered. While this was happening all the undercover ECI team and SAPS unit could do was wait.
Once the deal was brokered it took a further two nerve-wrenching hours for Cassin to get the money. Cassin paid the agent R440,000 for the horns, which, while it seems to be a huge amount is only a fraction of what Cassin would be paid when he exported it. It was only once the money had changed hands that the ECI unit and SAPS team could make the bust.
First they confiscated the money, and then they swooped in on Cassin arresting him at his shop before taking him back to the safe house to recover the horns. While Cassin denied all knowledge of the horns, the evidence spoke for itself. At the safe house the team not only retrieved the horns but also a small elephant tusk. Cassin still proclaimed his innocence as the team then went on to search his business premises where they were confronted with more horrific finds.
Most disturbing being a freezer full of dead animals, including a tiny lion cub and two hyena. It took the ECI and SAPS team the whole day to search all of Cassin's premises and they left with a bag of evidence. Cassin was taken to jail where he was released when bail was posted.
While Cassin's arrest, and hopefully his conviction, will be a small feather in the cap of the ECI unit and SAPS, they know his elimination from the chain will only disrupt the rhino horn trade for a short time, as there will soon be others more than willing to take his place.