Demand for rhino horn drives poaching to highest level yet


RHINO POACHING in South Africa has reached a record high despite huge state-sponsored efforts to stamp out the illegal activity over the past 12 months.

South Africa National Parks statistics released yesterday by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) show that 341 animals were lost to poachers in the first 10 months of the year, compared with 333 in 2010, previously the worst year of rhino poaching ever recorded in the country. An average of 36 rhinos were killed each year in South Africa in the years up to 2006.

The WWF said the spike in poaching in Africa and south Asia was largely due to increased demand for rhino horn in traditional medicine in Vietnam, where it was often used as a cancer “cure”.

The news that South Africa’s rhinos are increasingly at risk follows a WWF announcement last week that rhinos in Vietnam have become extinct.

“The carcass of Vietnam’s last Javan rhino was found with a gunshot wound and without its horn,” the organisation said recently.

Fewer than 50 Javan rhinos are left in the world, and they are to be found in Indonesia.

In recent decades South Africa has become known as the last sanctuary for rhinos, with nearly 90 per cent of the world’s population living in national parks or private game reserves. According to the WWF, there are currently 1,916 black rhino and 18,780 white rhino across the country.

Early last year, when government realised poaching was reaching epidemic proportions, it dispatched army units to patrol national parks across the country.

Since then at least a dozen poachers have been killed in shoot-outs with the authorities and many more arrested and charged.

However the lure of financial reward has prompted a steady stream of people to risk everything to poach the animal. It is believed one kilo of rhino horn can fetch more than €20,000 on the Asian black market.

While the WWF acknowledged that law-enforcement efforts were increasing, it insisted they were still insufficient to stop the international criminals. The gangs have become increasingly sophisticated, using night-vision goggles, helicopters and guns with silencers to hunt down and dispatch their prey.

“Vietnam should follow South Africa’s example and start sending poachers, traders, smugglers and sellers to jail,” WWF’s African rhino programme co-ordinator, Joseph Okori, said in September.

Some conservationists believe that legalising the rhino horn trade could help preserve the species, as hunting would then focus on old males to supply the market, rather than female animals.

Of the world’s five species of rhino, three are on the endangered list.