International crime syndicates are teaming up with poachers in South Africa, leading to continued slaughtering of rhinos with an added twist of using AK-47 assault rifles, night-vision goggles and taunts as rhino horn’s price exceeds the price of gold.
Poachers, after making their rhino kills, are leaving written messages for government troops, letting them know the battle is on. “They've become very aggressive,” said Ken Maggs, in charge of the environmental crime investigation unit for the South African government, the Associated Press reports. “They leave notes for us written in the sand, warnings. That indicates it is an escalating issue ... They are coming in prepared to fight.”
In April, the South African government deployed more than 140 troops to help fight the ongoing killing of rhinos whose horns are hacked off after being shot. The horns are then smuggled to China and Vietnam, markets which pay huge prices for the horns. The horns are ground up and sold by traditional medicinal practitioners as alleged cures for ills ranging from arthritis to cancer to fevers.
With a current price of $44,000 per pound, the horns have also begun disappearing from European museums featuring rhino exhibits.
Kruger National Park is one of the wildlife parks heaviest hit by the poachers, around two-thirds of them arriving in the area on foot, crossing the border from Mozambique. During the first half of 2011, South Africa saw 193 rhinos being killed, with 126 of the deaths occurring in Kruger.
Last year, rhino deaths in South Africa set a record, with 333 being killed. “Poaching is being undertaken almost without exception by sophisticated criminals, sometimes hunting from helicopters and using automatic weapons,” said Joseph Okori, African rhino program coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), according to AFP.
“South Africa is fighting a war against organized crime that risks reversing the outstanding conservation gains it made over the past century,” Okori added.
Although an increased troop presence was designed to help deter the rhino killings, poachers have responded by traveling in larger groups, with gangs of up to seven working under cover of darkness.
“They come across around sunset, aim to shoot the rhino before dark and then spend the night in the bush before heading home with the horn,” said Lt. Col. Bongie Vilakazi, AP reports. The South African soldiers do not operate at night, for fear of night-time predators, including lions.
The troops, concentrated in 16 temporary bases along the Sabi River valley, are situated in an area where the vast majority of rhino killings have taken place. The soldiers, armed with high-caliber rifles for self-defense, have helped relieve the pressure on park rangers faced with an overwhelming task of covering a vast area.
“Before, we were four rangers trying to cover 87 square kilometers (35 square miles), which is nearly impossible,” Cpl. Reckson Mashaba stated, according to AP.
Rhino Conservation notes 130 rhino were killed in the first four months of the year, with 72 suspects arrested. Thirteen suspects were killed and four wounded.
A case against one of the ringleaders is set to resume in September 2011. The horn syndicate case also involves at least 10 other suspects, including two veterinarians. Among the many charges are assault, corruption, fraud and contravention of the National Environmental Biodiversity Act.
Another dilemma for the rhinos are the very groups professing conservation efforts for the animals. High prices for the rhino horns have led farmers and ranchers to teaming up with the poachers. “If farmers were making a profit out of rhinos they would have the will to guard them against poachers,” said John Hume, a rancher with the largest private herd of rhino in the world, AP reports. “Instead, they are siding with the poachers because a rhino is worth more dead than alive.”
Rhino ranchers, or farmers, will make their deal with a poacher or illegal middleman, and “shhot the rhino, bury the body, take the horn. It pays him to kill it,” Hume added.
The South African government is receiving its share of criticism, as well. Previously criticized for exporting young rhinos to China, the government halted those exports last year over suspicions the Chinese were farming the rhinos for their horns. a suspicion denied by China.
Africa also has a stockpile of more than 55,000 pounds of rhino horn, either under government or private ownership. Ninety percent of that amount is held in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The question being asked by many countries is why the government will not sell part of the stockpile to help finance conservation efforts.
According to the WWF, there are approximately 3,725 black rhinos in East, Central, West and South Africa. The animals range from tropical and subtropical grasslands to savannas and deserts.