Huge rhino horn shipments seized at Bangkok, Hanoi

Customs officials display 21 rhino horns weight about 50kg, seized in the baggage of a woman at Suvarnabhumi airport. (Photo by Somchai Poomlard)

The Customs Department seized 21 "unusually large" rhinoceros horns worth around $5 million on the black market - 148.2 million baht.

The 50kg of horns were being smuggled by two Thai women who fled the airport and managed to evade arrest.

Also on Tuesday, Vietnam police at Hanoi's Noi Bai international airport seized more than 100 kilogrammes of rhino horn smuggled into the country in suitcases from Kenya.

The brazen killing of a rhinoceros at a wildlife park near Paris by assailants who removed a horn valued at nearly triple the price of gold has put zookeepers and customs worldwide on notice that poaching could be spreading beyond the killing fields of Africa and Asia.

Officials in France said Tuesday that a 5-year-old white rhinoceros named Vince was shot three times in the head by poachers who broke into the Thoiry Zoo. They used a chain saw to remove the rhino's horn.

At Suvarnabhumi, Customs officers found the horns in luggage belonging to a woman who arrived on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Phnom Penh, Phaisal Cheunjit, an adviser to the Customs Department, said.

The other suspect arrived on a flight from Vietnam but they were spotted talking to each other after they arrived, he said.

Customs and airport officials became suspicious because the bag looked heavy, so decided to scan it to see what was inside, Mr Phaisal said.

The women fled when they were being escorted to customs by airport officials and saw the bag being scanned, he said.

They were identified only by their first names as Thiitrat and Kansinee, who are 46 and 41 years old respectively, Mr Phaisal said.

Ms Thitirat, a Bangkok resident, was the passenger from Phnom Penh, while Ms Kansinee, a Nakhon Pathom resident, was on the Vietnam flight, he said.

Both are believed to be members of a wildlife trafficking gang.

The haul of the prized animal parts at Noi Bai airport were found hidden in luggage on a flight from Nairobi, according to the official publication of the Hanoi police department.

"After scanning and checking, customs officials discovered the two suitcases of 57 kilograms (125 pounds) and 61 kilograms were full of suspected rhino horns," the online Capital Security Newspaper reports said.

Photos showed the huge haul in suitcases and stacked on tables, almost a carbon copy of the Bangkok seizure.

Black market rhino horn sells for up to $60,000 per kilo -- more than gold or cocaine -- with demand principally coming from China and Vietnam where it is coveted as a traditional medicine and supposed aphrodisiac.

One horn can weigh four kilos -- comprised exclusively of keratin, the same substance in human hair and fingernails.

South Africa's government is moving ahead with plans to allow a domestic trade and limited export of rhino horns, alarming many international conservationists who believe rhinos will be more vulnerable to poachers who have killed record numbers in the past decade.

Draft regulations would allow a foreigner with permits to export "for personal purposes" a maximum of two rhino horns. Critics argue that any exported horns would be hard to monitor and likely would end up on the commercial market, defying global agreements to protect threatened rhino populations.

Most of the world's rhinos live in South Africa. An international ban on trade in rhino horns has been in place since 1977, and South Africa imposed a moratorium on the domestic trade in 2009, when rhino poaching was accelerating to meet growing demand for horns in parts of Asia, especially Vietnam.

Wild rhino populations have dwindled to just 29,000 from half a million at the beginning of the 20th century, according to the International Rhino Foundation.

Trade in rhino horn was banned globally in 1977 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

But South Africa's government has lost nation court battles to preserve its 2009 ban, which was challenged by rhino breeders, and has leaned toward trade, backing a failed proposal by neighbouring Swaziland at a UN wildlife conference in Johannesburg last year to legalize the international sale of rhino horn.

Meanwhile at Belgium's Pairi Daiza zoo, 60 kilometres southwest of Brussels, officials sawed the horns of three adult rhinos and a baby white born a year ago this month at its 5,000-animal complex.

The zoo said it will shorten its rhinos' horns as an anti-poaching measure following the grisly killing of the white rhino in France.

Director Eric Domb wrote on the zoo's Facebook page that the French killing had prompted him to ask "our veterinarian to proceed on a temporary basis and as an additional measure to security procedures already in place at Pairi Daiza" to shorten their rhinos' horns.

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