South African jailed 1 year and 5 months for trying to smuggle 11 pieces of rhino horn

Rhinoceros horn smuggling in Southeast Asia. (PHOTO: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — A South African who brought 11 pieces of rhinoceros horn through Singapore en route to Vietnam was jailed for one year and five months on Wednesday (8 April).

Thurman Shiraazudin Aiden Matthews, 45, had transited through Changi Airport on 5 January, when X-ray images caught the items – which weighed 22.085kg – within two suitcases. He had scouted the route three times prior without bring illegal items through.

He pleaded guilty to exporting a scheduled species without a licence, a breach of the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act (Chapter 29A).

Opportunity for easy money

According to investigations, Matthews met a Chinese man in Johannesburg in October last year. The man offered him the opportunity to earn easy money by transporting wildlife products, such as rhino horns or lion bones to Vietnam.

Matthews agreed and was introduced to two Chinese women who coordinated the transaction.

On 30 December last year, one of the women contacted Matthews and told him of arrangements for him to depart Johannesburg on 4 January at 10.30pm and arrive at Ho Chi Minh City on 5 January.

On 4 January, Matthews met one of the women and collected the two suitcases containing the loot and cash for the return tickets. He bought return tickets for 6 January.

As part of the arrangements, someone would remove the two suitcases before they went through screening at the Ho Chih Minh Airport baggage department, and Matthews would leave without touching the suitcases. He was to be paid 20,000 South African rand (S$2,000) for a successful delivery.

To familiarise himself with the route, Matthews travelled thrice from Johannesburg to Vietnam through Singapore. He did not carry illegal items during these trips.

Pieces wrapped in transparent plastic

On 5 January, at about 7.40am, a baggage screening officer at Changi Airport noticed the items while screening the suitcases. The two suitcases were removed and, from their luggage tags, Matthews was identified as the owner. Both suitcases were wrapped in plastic cling wrap and locked.

At the review room, the suitcases were opened in Matthews’ presence and the 11 pieces of horns were found wrapped in thin pieces of transparent plastic and covered in aluminium foil. Along with the horns were two laptops, a mobile phone and titbits. The items, minus the snacks, were seized by National Parks (NParks) personnel.

The pieces of horns were sent to the Singapore Zoo for analysis, which confirmed they were from rhinoceros. Further analysis by NParks showed they were from the White Rhino species. The 11 pieces were taken from at least five rhinos.

According to an NParks prosecutor, all rhinoceros species from the Rhinocerotidae family are listed in the Schedule of Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act (Chapter 29A).

The prosecution sought 20 months' jail, stating that at least five adult rhinos were killed for the horns.

Matthews had been jailed in South Africa on property offences such as housebreaking on 12 March last year, and had been on parole on 16 December. However, District Judge Adam Nakhoda said these would not apply for his present court case.

In control of suitcase for less than 30 minutes

Matthews' lawyer Sunil Sudheesan said that his client turned to the promise of easy cash due to personal circumstances.

"Desperate people do desperate things. Your honour would see from the letter that the accused was unemployed at the material time and approached with opportunity,” Sunil said.

The lawyer said that the Chinese individuals his client worked with had planned everything and that his client had been in control of the suitcase for only half an hour or less.

Matthews did not receive any of the money he was promised, said Sunil, who also noted it is ironic that his client actually donated to a rhino conservation fund every month.

In seeking for less than 15 months' jail for his client, Sunil sought to compare his case with a previous case where black rhino horns were involved. Black rhinos were more rare, pointed out the lawyer.

On this, DJ Nakhoda noted that while black rhinos were more critically endangered, he considered the number of animals involved as more important.

The judge noted that the offences were planned and that Matthews had played his part by travelling with profit in mind.