Safe crackers steal nearly $3 million in South Africa rhino horn

JOHANNESBURG Sat Apr 6, 2013 6:37am EDT

A rhino is dehorned by a veterinary surgeon and rangers to prevent poaching at the Kruger national park in Mpumalanga province September 16, 2011. REUTERS/Ilya Kachaev

A rhino is dehorned by a veterinary surgeon and rangers to prevent poaching at the Kruger national park in Mpumalanga province September 16, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Ilya Kachaev

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Thieves have made off with 66 rhino horns worth some $2.75 million in one of the biggest horn heists South Africa has seen after breaking into the safe of a game farm owner.

The horns had been removed from rhinos at the Leshoka Thabang Game Reserve in northern Limpopo province to protect the animals from poachers who supply them illegally to international crime syndicates.

Demand has also been growing for rhino horn in Vietnam, where a newly affluent class has been buying it to treat ailments ranging from hangovers to cancer. The treatments have no basis in science but demand has pushed the price up to $65,000 a kg, making it more expensive than gold.

"In my hands it is worth nothing, but in the hands of the guys who have it now, the horns are worth a lot of money," Johan van Zyl, owner of the game farm, told Reuters by telephone.

He said about 42 kg of horn had been stolen, which, according to prices of Vietnamese traditional medicine deals, would sell for about $2.75 million on the streets of Hanoi.

Van Zyl said he had permits for horn removal and storage. South Africa allows for private storage of horns, which must be registered, while forbidding almost all sales.

The thieves broke into a business office on Wednesday evening and appeared to have used a blowtorch to open a safe where the horns were kept, police and the game farm owner said.

"At this stage, we haven't arrested anybody yet, but we are still investigating," Limpopo police spokeswoman Colonel Ronel Otto said.

South Africa is home to the vast majority of rhinos on the continent, with numbers estimated at about 21,000.

Last year, more than 660 rhinos in South Africa were killed by poachers - a record high - and more than 800 rhinos could be killed this year if poaching continues at its current rate.

Several game reserve owners have dehorned rhinos to make them less likely to be killed by poachers, while South Africa has deployed its army to protect the animals in national parks.

Rhino horn has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, where it was ground into powder to treat a range of maladies including rheumatism, gout and even possession by devils.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Alison Williams)

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