The Dirty Fight for the Rhino

They used to rely on snares, poison and shotguns to kill rhinos for their horns. Now international crime syndicates are arming poachers with night-vision goggles and AK-47 assault rifles as the price for rhino horn surpasses gold.  When the crackle of gunfire signals the death of yet another rhino, radios squawk to life here in South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park and soldiers ready for pre-dawn patrols.  “They’ve become very aggressive,” Ken Maggs, head of the South African government environmental crime investigation unit, said of the poachers. “They leave notes for us written in the sand, warnings. That indicates it is an escalating issue … They are coming in prepared to fight.”

The government of South Africa, home to 90 percent of the rhinos left on the continent, is fighting back. Since more than 140 troops were deployed in April, the number of rhinos killed in Kruger has dropped from 40 in March and 30 in April to 15 in May and just two in June. Fifteen alleged poachers also have been killed this year, and nine suspects wounded in gunfights.

Still, rhino carcasses with mutilated faces are becoming a common sight in African wildlife parks. The hacked-off horns are destined to be smuggled to China and Vietnam, where traditional medicine practitioners grind them up for sale as alleged cures for everything from fevers to arthritis and cancer.  The horns have become so valuable that thieves this year started stealing rhino exhibits in European museums. The going rate is up to $44,000 a pound (60,000 pounds a kilogram) according to the London Metropolitan Police department.  Even in the United States, police in Denver have arrested members of an Irish syndicate trying to smuggle rhino horn.  “Aside from Central and South America, every region of the world appears to be affected by criminals who are fraudulently acquiring rhinoceros horns,” warned John M. Sellar, enforcement chief of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. “Government officials are being corrupted. Money-laundering is taking place,” he said…..

Conservationists have failed to persuade traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and consumers that rhino horn has no medicinal value. Some link the upsurge in rhino poaching to a 2007  Chinese government decision to promote traditional medicine as alternative medicine grows increasingly popular in the West as well. Until then, South Africa was losing about 10 rhinos a year to poachers.

Trophy hunting in South Africa is compounding the problem. More than 100 white rhinos were killed under permit here last year. The Department of Environment did not respond to questions about permits issued this year.  So tempting are the rewards that veterinarians and game ranchers – the very people supposedly dedicated to conserving wildlife – have been arrested in recent months for alleged involvement in the rhino horn trade….

Making Horn Trade Legal:  “If farmers were making a profit out of rhinos they would have the will to guard them against poachers,” said rancher John Hume, owner of the largest number of privately held rhino in the world. “Instead, they are siding with the poachers because a rhino is worth more dead than alive.”  He said some farmers “just contract with an illegal dealer, shoot the rhino, bury the body, take the horn. It pays him to kill it.”

Excerpts from, Michelle Faul , Troops fight rhino poachers, http://www.iol.co.za, July 23, 2011

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