JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South Africa is seeing a major escalation in the number of rhinos killed illegally as gangs of poachers go to increasingly sophisticated lengths to steal their horns.
With powerful crime syndicates in South Africa behind the killings, fueled by demand for horns in Vietnam and China, conservationists worry that the war with rhino poachers is only just beginning.
So far 124 rhinos have been poached this year, more than the 122 that were killed in all of 2009. This is a dramatic increase compared to 2007, when only 13 rhinos were lost.
A gruesome case of poaching, using a typically high-tech method, took place in KwaZulu-Natal province just a few weeks ago.
The poachers flew into a private game reserve by helicopter and while hovering above, shot tranquilizer darts into a white rhino cow that had a month-old baby nearby. They landed and using a chainsaw, roughly hacked off the sedated rhino's horn. But in the process they cut her whole nose off, leaving a massive wound that would normally kill a rhino. The animal somehow survived.
"It's a miracle that she is still alive," said Faan Coetzee, head of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Rhino Security Project, which works to help private landowners such as game parks to prevent poaching.
The baby, meanwhile, was missing for days only to be later found dead from dehydration and neglect. It is suspected that the rhino calf ran away during the attack and the mother — terribly injured and with no sense of smell — was not able to locate it.
South Africa is home to 93 percent of all rhinos in Africa, said Coetzee, which makes the country a prime hunting ground for those seeking rhino horns.
The poachers are motivated by "greed," he said, with the bulk of demand coming from China and Vietnam where horns are ground up and used in traditional medicine thought to reduce fever and even cure cancer.
"There has never been such a high rate of escalation (in poaching)," said Wanda Mkutshulwa, head of corporate communications for South African National Parks. "We are concerned about what's happening throughout the country."
South Africa National Parks have lost 55 rhinos so far this year. The country's largest and best-known game reserve, the Kruger National Park, which is home to an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 white rhinos and 600 critically endangered black rhinos, has become a battleground against poachers. The South African military patrols the park borders in an attempt to thwart poachers.
Park rangers are using improved surveillance technology, like night-vision equipment and modern radio communication technology to replace the old radio system, to keep up with the poachers. High-tech invisible tracking devices have also been attached to some rhinos at Kruger.
South African National Parks Chief Executive David Mabunda recently asked the public to report to police any "low-flying Robinson R44 helicopters with concealed registration numbers," which are commonly used by poachers.
A new national wildlife crime reaction unit, involving environmental inspectors, law enforcement agencies and conservation groups, has been established specifically to fight organized crime syndicates that are involved in rhino poaching.
Despite the surge, Mkutshulwa points out that the white rhino population is not under threat of extinction. The number of rhinos killed by poachers is still below 1 percent of the existing population and much lower than the annual growth rate of both black and white rhino.
"Talks about extinction are rather alarmist and overstating matters, but that does not mean we are not concerned," said Mkutshulwa. "We must realize that we are dealing with organized crime. They are always improving."
According to Coetzee, there are between 350 and 400 private landowners with rhinos in South Africa, accounting for 25 percent of the country's white rhino population and playing an important role in conservation.
He advises private landowners to have a rhino monitor — someone who will keep watch over the animals full-time and be readily able to detect intruders — and to mix up patrols so that it is not a predictable pattern. Staff must be closely screened because poachers may try to bribe them for help. Coetzee also tells landowners to have a camera on hand to gather evidence if necessary — for example, if they see a helicopter.
Some reserves have dehorned their rhinos in an attempt to make them less of a target. The Rietvlei Nature Reserve near Pretoria decided to dehorn their animals after poachers killed two white rhinos earlier this year. A private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, which has also decided to dehorn their rhinos to help protect them, is offering guests the chance to help with the procedure — at a price.
But Coetzee warns that dehorning is not a solution and that other precautions are essential. He explains that even dehorned rhinos can still be a target because the horn cannot be entirely removed and there is still a financial incentive for poachers. He also points out that many poachers work at night and can't necessarily tell if the animals have been dehorned.
The World Wildlife Fund's Jacques Flamand, who is in charge of a black rhino range expansion project, said that white rhino are far more heavily poached. Black rhino "have been kind of spared," due to their smaller numbers and have not been specifically targeted, he said.
Black rhinos are critically endangered. There are only about 4,000 in Africa, double the number in the 1980s when the population bottomed out.
Flamand's project involves finding large blocks of land that could accommodate as many as 50 rhinos. Black rhinos require much larger territories than white rhinos — up to 140,000 acres, depending on the terrain and rainfall — and this creates serious security concerns when it comes to poachers.
"The larger the area is, the more difficult it is to protect," he said.