Rhino horns worth $5,2m stolen

Thieves in Mpumalanga made off with 112 pieces of rhino horn, weighing 80,135kgs.

Elephant ivory, rifles and ammunition, which were in the same safe. Picture: Christa Van der Walt/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - Rhino horn stock piles worth over $5,2 million have been stolen from a South African game park office, the raided tourist agency said on Tuesday, in the first known theft of its kind.

Thieves on Monday broke into the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency and cut into a strong box, making off with 112 pieces of rhino horn, weighing 80,135 kilograms.

"It's the first time there has been a break in at our premises, it was obviously well planned," the parks' spokesperson Kholofelo Nkambule said.

Elephant ivory, rifles and ammunition, which were in the same safe, were left untouched, Nkambule said.

Poaching rhinos for their horns is a growing problem in South Africa and a lucrative business for organised criminal networks but it is unusual for thieves to target stock piles.

Most of the rhino horns were from dehorning operations, which is an attempt by local authorities to decrease poaching and to protect the rhino species.

The biggest market for illegal rhino horn in recent years has been Vietnam, where the product is sold in pharmacies and over the Internet at about $65,000 a kilogram, making it more expensive than gold, platinum and cocaine.

More than 1,000 rhinos were poached last year for their horns in South Africa, an increase of 50 percent from the previous year, a government department said in January.

Most of the rhino killings happen in the Mpumalanga province's Kruger National Park.

"It's scary, we are used to people killing rhinos in the bush but we never had a situation where horns were stolen from stockpiles," said Ray Thakuli, South African National Parks spokesperson.

"We have never had a situation like this in South Africa, it's the first ever time ... in private or in public parks."

No one had been arrested in connection with the theft and a spokesman for a national special investigations body, the Hawks, said they would not "rule out the possibility of an inside job".