Criminal gangs drive surge in rhino poaching

Nine-month-old rhinoceros Vuma was orphaned after poachers this month hacked out his mother’s horn and left her dead in a pool of blood at a reserve just north of Johannesburg.

She was the latest victim in a wave of poaching that has seen the number of slain rhinos escalate sharply this year in South Africa.

Vuma, whose name means “acceptance”, only survived because his horn has still to grow. His mother was the last adult at the reserve, so he was moved last weekend to join a new herd.

Rhinos are so social that they can actually die of loneliness if left on their own.

“He was very stressed, dehydrated and extremely hungry when he arrived, but now he is slowly making progress, he is adapting well,” said Ed Hern, owner of the private Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve where Vuma now lives with two other orphaned calves.

Poaching has surged this year on growing demand in Asia, where rhino horns are believed to have medicinal powers.

Last year, 122 rhinos were killed, but the number is set to double this year, with 139 already slain, said Pelham Jones, chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association.

Conservationists warned that if poaching continues at the current rate, the number of killings will outstrip the new births.

“South Africa is the remaining bastion of a viable rhino population in Africa, and they [poachers] won’t stop until there are no rhinos left,” said Jones.

“What is of concern now is the level of sophistication they use for these attacks and the brutality,” he added.

Well-trained mercenaries
In the past, poachers used home-made weapons, but now conservation experts say international criminal gangs have entered the trade with specialised veterinary drugs, guns, helicopters, night vision equipment, bullet-proof vests and well-trained mercenaries to track rhinos.

South Africa National Parks spokesperson Wanda Mkutshulwa said the government has established a Wildlife Reaction Unit to fight and combat rhino poaching.

“The aim of the unit is to coordinate the reporting, investigation and prosecution of these criminals in a systematic and deliberate manner, because it has come to light that we are not dealing with your ‘normal’ poacher but rather with organised crime involving a number of syndicates,” said Mkutshulwa.

She said that R5,2-million was spent last year to hire more field rangers and buy new equipment for the Kruger National Park.

Private game reserves, which often have less security, have been more vulnerable but are also stepping up their defences.

Threat to tourism
The commercial value of the slain rhinos is more than R470-million, said Jones, adding that tourism will be greatly affected if the problem continued as the animal was among the big five that South Africa boasts.

“These guys know there is increased security at Kruger so now they are shifting their focus to us. I have to pay R40 000 a month for additional security and equipment,” said Hern, who lost two rhinos to poaching two months ago.

“Rhino poaching is not only a problem but a trauma in our lives,” he said.

“There is a lot of anger that goes with these things. One of our rhinos that was killed had been here for 25 years. These people just come and kill it just for the horn.”

Jones said an awareness campaign in Asia was needed to explain that rhino horns have no scientific medicinal value.

“Scientists have proven that the rhino horn has keratin, which is the same chemical found in your nails. We respect their [Asian] culture and heritage so they must do the same to us,” he said.

“Rhinos are part of our heritage. We brought these animals from extinction.”—Sapa-AFP

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