In South Africa, home to 90% of the world’s population of rhinos, a war against internationally funded rhino poachers is losing ground.
Last year 333 were killed, nearly half of them in the Kruger National Park. The year before that it was 209. The year before that, in 2008, the total jumped to a staggering 83 rhinos from a previous year total of only 17. The accelerating numbers are a real cause for concern. In the first three months of 2011 it’s already reached 81. This is in spite of some rigorous countermeasures.
Well resourced and highly organized crime syndicates are now equipped with helicopters, night vision equipment, high-tech weapons, tranquilizer darts and chain saws. The horns are taken in efficient military-style operations with little regard for the animals and often with gruesome results.
Rhino horn, by weight, is more than double the value of gold. The average weight of an African rhino horn varies between 3 to 5 Kilograms (6.6 to 11 Pounds) and an average size horn goes for around 50,000 USD (35,000 UK Pounds) on the local black market. Once the rhino horn leaves African shores the price soars to 40,000 USD per kilogram in Vietnam and around 60,000 USD per kilogram in China. Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Richard Emslie says:
“Most rhino horns leaving Africa are destined for Southeast Asian medicinal markets that are believed to be driving the poaching epidemic. In particular, Vietnamese nationals have been repeatedly implicated in rhino crimes in South Africa.”
To thwart the poachers the South African military is now patrolling conservation park borders. Other initiatives include DNA tagging of horns and the establishment of a National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit.
Recently five rhinos on South Africa’s Mafikeng Game Reserve were each equipped with a GPS tracking chip concealed in a hole drilled in the “dead” base of the rhino’s horn.
There have been some successes. In September 2010 a South African rhino poaching syndicate was broken up. The eleven included a prominent businessman and two veterinarians who are alleged to be the “masterminds” of the syndicate.