30 July 2010

Gangs drive surge in poaching

Rhino calf Vuma was orphaned after poachers hacked out his mother's horn and left her to die at a reserve north of Johannesburg: the latest victim in a wave of 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


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,
chairman 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.


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 spokeswoman 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 5.2 million rands was spent last year to hire more field rangers and buy new
equipment for Kruger National Park.


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


The commercial value of the slain rhinos is more than 470
million rands (64 million dollars), said Jones, adding that tourism
will be greatly affected if the problem continued as the animal was
among the big five which 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 40,000 rand 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." (- Tabelo Timse, Sapa-AFP, July 2010)


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