South African sentenced to 24 months in prison for Singapore’s largest-ever seizure of rhino horn, worth S$1.2 million

SINGAPORE — A 33-year-old South African man was sentenced to 24 months in prison in Singapore on Friday (Jan 26) after pleading guilty to two charges under the Endangered Species Act. Sthembiso Joel Gumede was caught while being transported in Singapore with 20 rhino horns worth about S$1.2 million, the largest seizure of its kind in Singapore to date.

Today Online reported that the horns included those of a critically endangered black rhino. The National Parks Board (NParks) said in a press release on Friday that it was the harshest sentence yet handed down in Singapore for smuggling wildlife parts.

The court heard on Wednesday that Gumede became involved in the illegal trade of rhino horn after being introduced to Jaycee Israel Marvaton, a person involved in the illegal trade. The duo discussed plans to find people willing to transport the horns on trips organised by Marvaton and explored potential methods of concealing the horns in the cargo.

Smuggling operation exposed after rhino horns discovered at Changi Airport

In September 2022, Marvatona asked Gumede to transport rhino horns from South Africa to Laos via Singapore. He promised to make the trip “cost-effective,” providing return tickets and an unspecified amount of cash.

On October 4, 2022, Norizan Salleh, a baggage screening officer at the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, discovered two cardboard boxes wrapped in plastic wrap during an X-ray inspection of transit baggage. Noticing that the boxes appeared to contain organic horn-shaped objects, she informed her supervisor, which led to further inspection of the boxes.

Wesley Lim, a senior investigating officer at NParks, was assigned to the situation. The investigation revealed that Gumede, the person associated with the crates, had checked them in at Johannesburg Central Airport onto a Singapore Airlines flight to Changi Airport, intending to board a connecting flight from Singapore to Vientiane.

After the boxes were seized, Gumede was asked to report to the Changi Airport Police Headquarters, where he was taken to an inspection room. Both boxes were opened in Gumede’s presence, revealing a total of 20 rhino horns weighing about 34.7 kg.

DNA analysis confirms horns come from endangered species

The estimated wholesale value of these rhino horns as of October 4, 2022 was approximately 1,200,140 Singapore dollars. DNA analysis by NParks experts confirmed that all 20 horns were genuine and came from two endangered species: the white rhino and the critically endangered black rhino.

Today Online reported that the horn samples were sent to the Department of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa for further DNA analysis. Analysis showed that 18 pieces were from 15 different southern white rhinos, while two pieces were from a single black rhino.

Deputy Public Prosecutor General (DPP) Lee Da Zhuan noted that Gumede does not have a valid export or re-export permit under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Investigations revealed that Marvatona had purchased rhino horns from illegal poachers in South Africa, intending to sell them to a man known in Laos as “Jimmy”.

Harsh and deterrent sentence to combat rhino horn trade

DPP Lee argued for a 37-month prison sentence, emphasising the urgent need for a harsh and deterrent sentence. He said the illegal trade in rhino horn not only threatens the animals’ existence but also encourages a thriving black market economy.

He also highlighted Singapore’s vulnerability to the smuggling of endangered species, given that its airports handle more than 30 million passengers a year.

DPP Lee said the case represented the largest ever seizure of rhino horn in Singapore, emphasising the need to stop the illegal trade in wildlife and send a clear message that Singapore is committed to protecting and preserving the delicate balance of ecosystems.

Each charge against Gumede, relating to the export or re-export of regulated species without a valid CITES permit, carries a potential penalty of up to two years in prison or a fine of S$50,000 for each species, or both.

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