(Updates with size of theft in second paragraph.)
April 22 (Bloomberg) -- The theft of rhino horns from steel safes belonging to the national parks department in South Africa’s eastern province of Mpumalanga is the biggest of its kind in the country, a police department said.
The theft, which was discovered at 5:30 a.m. local time yesterday, was of 112 rhino horn pieces weighing a total of 80.14 kilograms (177 pounds), the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency said. While rhino horn sold illegally in Asia can fetch as much as $95,000 per kilogram, it trades at about 100,000 rand ($9,500) locally, according to national parks .
The thieves “knew where they were going and what they were going to do,” Paul Ramaloko, a spokesman for the police anti- corruption unit known as the Hawks, said. “This is the biggest theft of rhino horn we have ever experienced.”
South Africa is home to 83 percent of Africa’s rhinos and 73 percent of all wild rhino worldwide. This year, 294 of the animals have been poached compared with a record 1,004 for all of last year. The horns are smuggled to east Asia where they are believed to cure cancer.
The parks agency had the horns in its possession after undertaking dehorning operations on live rhinos to protect them from poaching. Some of the horns were microchipped and DNA tagged, the agency said.
“Access was gained through an office window, a strong room was cut open in this office, the office door was broken and access was gained to the main strong room where the pieces were kep’t,” the agency said. The perimeter of the property is regularly patrolled.
Rhino horns are being increasingly targeted by criminals.
Last year eight horns worth an estimated $650,000 were stolen from a museum in Ireland.
Earlier this month, Vietnamese pop stars Thu Minh and Thanh Bui performed at a game park in the Eastern Cape province to promote the start of a campaign in their country to discourage the purchase of rhino horns from poachers.
--With assistance from Franz Wild in Johannesburg.