Times SELECT 09 January 2020

Finding rhino horn, drugs, batches of Viagra, abalone and fake clothing inside travellers’ luggage is all in a day’s work for a company doing the screening at the country’s major airports.

In the past six months, Aviation Coordination Services (ACS), operating at nine airports, has confiscated more than 32kg of rhino horns worth R26m – destined for Hong Kong – and more than 60kg of drugs.

The company scans nearly 21 million bags a year for both international and domestic flights.

Speaking to Times Select, CEO Duke Badisheng Phahla said that on October 10, before 11am, rhino horns weighing just over 16kg were found in a suitcase bound for Hong Kong.

“We located the owner and a suspect was arrested immediately and handed over to police,” Phahla said.

“We also discovered that another consignment of rhino horns had managed to go through and we alerted the Hong Kong authorities. When the flight landed another suspect was arrested and another 16kg of rhino horn confiscated. The man was arrested and sent back to South Africa,” he said.

Phahla said that in July they managed to confiscate 60kg of narcotics also destined for Asia.

“The drugs were hidden in a number of ornaments. The suspect was handed to police,” he said.

ACS was jointly established in 1999 by the Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA), the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (BARSA) and the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA).

Its efforts are paying off, as in May when the Hawks’ Serious Organised Crime Investigation unit caught a suspicious-looking traveller at the OR Tambo International Airport with 30kg of rhino horn.

According to police spokesperson Capt Ndivhumo Mulamu, the suspect was arrested before he could board his flight to the United Arab Emirates.

The trading of horn is illegal in SA, in line with the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) regulations, and a conviction could mean 15 to 40 years in prison.

SA has had to double down on its efforts to protect endangered species since its horns are much sought-after on the black market.

According to a conservationist Phil Hatting rhino horn costs about $20,000 (R278,000) per kilogram in Southeast Asia.

Megan Carr, the founder of Rhinos in Africa and a conservationist, said the average price for raw rhino horn in the Asian market has been in long-term decline.

“One rhino horn weighing about 4kg is now worth $60,000 (R835,000) on the black market,” Carr said.

Phahla said the horns were detected when their screeners picked up high-density material and rejected the bag for further investigation. 

They then alerted the authorities and the airlines who called the passenger to open the bag.

Last month, a 55-year-old man was arrested at OR Tambo International – the seventh person in six weeks – for dealing in drugs, while more than R7m of heroin and cocaine were seized in the same period.

In July, a 34-year-old man was arrested for alleged possession of lion bones during a sting operation after crime intelligence issued an advisory about a suspect truck headed to OR Tambo International Airport.

“This led to the discovery of 12 boxes filled with what was later established to be lion bones, destined for Malaysia,” said Mulamu.

Phahla said: “We are mandated to screen for explosives only. So anything that has high material density such as helium batteries is all we see on our images. One day we saw a hand grenade toy but it had stainless steel metal in it. Which proves that people are always testing the system.”

When they do pick up any suspect packages they alert the security structures at the airport.

Also in July, a 21-year-old woman was arrested for alleged possession of drugs worth about R1m.

The South African Revenue Service says it has made significant strides in combating the import and export of illicit goods. It seized goods worth almost R3.7bn in 2018/19.

These included everything from narcotics and cigarettes to endangered species such as abalone and rhino horn, sex-enhancement drugs, fake clothing and alcohol.

In one instance, on January 7 2019, it seized cannabis oil sent from Canada, with an estimated value of R300m, at Durban harbour.

A month earlier, acetanthranil, a mandrax precursor, with an estimated value of R45m was found after it made its way from Hong Kong to OR Tambo International.

Viagra pills worth R30m were found at OR Tambo International on May 13 2018. The pills had come in from India.

This was the second such haul after a batch worth just over R24m, also from India, was found five months earlier.

Compared with the same period in the previous financial year (April 2017 to March 2018) the number of busts increased to 6,828 from 4,840, as did their value, from R2.4bn to R3.7bn.

National police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo was not available for comment.

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