Pretoria inquiry confirms secret battle for the rhino

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The World Wide Fund for Nature ran a covert operation in southern Africa aimed at stamping out illegal trade in rhino horn, a South African judicial commission reported yesterday. The report confirms an article which appeared in the Independent in January 1991.

The commission, headed by Judge Mark Kumleben, was appointed by President Nelson Mandela to investigate the smuggling of ivory and rhino horn from southern African countries through South Africa.

The report cited evidence that the operation - codenamed Project Lock - was the brainchild of Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, first president of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) then known as the World Wildlife Fund.

John Hanks, WWF projects manager from 1985 to 1990, told the commission the unit was set up after he and Prince Bernhard made a field trip through Africa in 1987, the report said.

The prince asked whether Mr Hanks knew of an organisation willing and able to track down and expose the smugglers. KAS International, a private company formed by David Stirling, founder of the SAS, produced a feasibility study and was then appointed to undertake the task, the report said. "The operation was aimed at all parts of southern and central Africa where the survival of rhino was threatened by poaching."

Rhino horn is in great demand in Asia for traditional medicines, especially for the treatment of fevers.

The report said that the anti-smuggling team, which began work in 1989, established safe houses in Pretoria and later in Johannesburg. A WWF document handed in to the commission indicated that the covert unit operated against smugglers in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and other southern African countries. South African police told the commission that the unit stopped its operations in mid-1990.

South Africa's army, according to the report, was involved in the large- scale destruction of wildlife, and smuggling, in Angola and Namibia for more than a decade. "During the period from mid-1978 to about 1986, the South African Defence Force (military intelligence division) officially, though covertly, participated in the illicit possession and transportation of ivory and rhino horn from Angola and Namibia to [South Africa]," the report said.

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