Trade in rhino horn fuels massive poaching surge in South Africa

Eighty-four of the animals have been killed by poachers in the country so far this year

South Africa is witnessing a massive surge in rhino poaching, an activity blamed on criminal syndicates striving to meet an "insatiable appetite" for rhinoceros horn in east Asia.

Eighty-four rhinos have been killed by poachers in the country so far this year, a jump from the 13 deaths in 2007.

Kruger Park, a worldwide tourist attraction, has been hardest hit, suffering the loss of 33 rhinos since January. Nineteen have been killed in KwaZulu-Natal province, and some privately owned reserves have lost seven animals.

Conservationists say it is the biggest spike in poaching for 15 years and blame the smuggling trade connected to countries, such as China and Vietnam, where rhino horn can fetch thousands of pounds for its perceived medicinal value.

They say that Asian countries' strengthening trade links with Africa have shortened the illegal supply chain. They also say more sophisticated poaching methods are being used, with organised criminal gangs flying in to game reserves by helicopter to kill rhinos, hack off their horns and make a quick getaway.

South Africa has about 1,490 black rhinos, more than a third of the world population of this critically endangered species. There are about 16,275 southern white rhinos, 93% of the global total.

Yolan Friedmann, chief executive of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, said the number of rhinos lost to poaching had altered from an average of 10 a year to 100. "There has been a rampant increase in South Africa," she said. "Poaching figures for this year have already surpassed the whole of last year. It's probably the worst it's been for 15 years. There's a lot more money going into poaching and it's becoming more hi-tech. It's no longer just a man with a bow and arrow wading through the bush. These guys are using helicopters and AK-47 rifles."

She warned that initiatives used previously could not meet the new threat. "Despite the once successful Save the Rhino project, rhinos are under siege. South Africa is facing a crisis. We've done extremely well in rhino conservation, but something has changed in the past 18 months, there's an insatiable appetite for rhino horn in the far east."

Ground up and added to liquids, rhino horn has been used for millennia in traditional Asian medicine to treat fevers and other ailments.

Rumours have recently been circulating on the internet that a Vietnamese government official claimed rhino horn cured his cancer, potentially fuelling demand.

Last year a Vietnamese diplomat was caught on camera taking delivery of contraband rhino horn outside the Vietnamese embassy in Pretoria.

There is also a lucrative market in Yemen and Oman for daggers with rhino-horn handles‚ frequently given to boys during rites of passage.

Poaching gangs, often from nearby countries, are believed to earn about $200 (£125) a horn but once the material has been transported, ground and mixed with other substances it can sell for thousands of pounds on the black market. Poachers' sentences and fines are usually negligible.

Friedmann said that seemingly legitimate parties also exploited loopholes. "Their hunting permits say they are only allowed to mount the rhino horns on the wall but we're finding they use the byproducts to sell illegally. Price is not an issue. A hunt was sold last year to Vietnamese hunters for more than R1m [£84,000]. That's a record price for white rhino."

Luxury private game reserves seem to have been caught out by the upsurge; many employ guards but the men tend to lack training in wildlife protection.

In July a meeting in Geneva of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species warned that rhino poaching around the world was set to reach a 15-year high, and there was growing evidence of Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai nationals' involvement in the illegal procurement and transport of horn out of Africa.

The South African government has been criticised for disbanding the police's endangered species protection unit in 2003. But Buyelwa Sonjica, the environmental affairs minister, recently announced the formation of a special investigations team to tackle poaching.

South African National Parks has said it will spend R2m (£165,000) to provide an additional 57 game rangers in Kruger Park and equip them with motorbikes. Patrols along the park's 280-mile South Africa and Mozambique border, where all 33 poached rhinos were killed, are also set to resume after being suspended three years ago.

At least 14 poachers, all Mozambican, have been arrested and several illegal firearms seized in Kruger this year. Nationwide, 22 poachers were caught. In January an international rhino-smuggling ring was smashed and 11 people were arrested.

Rhino numbers have been increasing worldwide thanks to various governments and NGOs. But Cathy Dean, director of the UK-based Save the Rhino International, warned: "The gains of the last decade are in real jeopardy. The underlying concern is that this upsurge in rhino poaching – a major issue in Zimbabwe as well as South Africa – is no longer opportunistic poaching by individuals but carried out by … highly sophisticated criminal gangs."


David Smith in Johannesburg

The GuardianTramp

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