Rhino horn trade triggers extinction threat

Story highlights

One rhino is killed in South Africa every 21 hours threatening the the future of the species

The military and heavily-armed security guards are fighting the poachers

Powdered rhino horn is used as a medicine in Asia sparking a thriving black market

Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa CNN  — 

Tourism and wildlife officials want the slaughter to stop. Private security armies and the South African military have cracked down. Still, rhinos are being killed in South Africa alone at a rate exceeding one a day, a rate that has already made one species of rhino extinct and threatens the two others.

Tourism chiefs and wildlife protection groups say both black and white rhinos face extinction because of poaching to meet demand from Asia where powdered rhino horn is used as a medicine, and the Middle East, where the horn is valued for decoration.

Exact prices are hard to gauge but some say a kilogram of rhino horn is more valuable than gold, though that is disputed by others looking into the murky black market.

In 2011, more than 340 rhinos have been killed so far in South Africa – more than for the whole of 2010 which was itself a record year, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Africa’s western black rhino is now officially extinct, according to a review of animals and plants published last week in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Now, some involved in the South African wildlife tourism industry are talking about extreme measures to curb the poaching.

One idea suggested by a park owner, but not acted on, is to insert a poisoned rhino horn into the illegal trade – so that end consumers would fall ill.

Another suggestion is to make some trade in rhino horn legal because unlike elephant ivory it is possible to take a rhino’s horn without killing the animal – although the poachers rarely leave their animal victims alive.

Andrew Parker, head of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, believes the illegal trade might have spiked as an unintended consequence of tough regulations on legal hunting.

In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the military is deployed along the Mozambique border to stop the poachers.

While successful in terms of reducing the rhino kills in that area, it has also led to poachers targeting privately-owned game parks instead where security for the animal is a big expense that not all of them can afford.

The bigger private parks have their own armed security and electrified fences; Parker says the Sabi Sand Game Reserve is looking at using drones or radar, but for smaller parks the costs of protecting rhinos is becoming exorbitant.

Dr. Brett Gardner, a veterinarian at Johannesburg Zoo, said: “We have to get rid of the trade in Asia. We’re wasting time and funds doing it here. We’re possibly slowing down the extinction of the rhino. But you’re not going to stop it.

“In South Africa where we have good protection of our rhinos, good reporting of when they are shot, we are losing approximately one every 21 hours.”

In Asia the trade in rhino horn is believed to be dominated by organized gangs from places like Vietnam, say South African wildlife officials.

Rhino horn is culturally believed to have an array of medicinal qualities. Some Internet ads even claim it can be used as a cancer treatment.

Back in South Africa, people like Parker and groups like WWF want stiff sentences for poachers and the people who employ them.

Almost everyone involved in the fight against poaching says they can understand why a poor, unemployed man desperate to feed his family would be tempted into the illegal business.

Reserves such as Sabi Sands are trying to educate their poorer neighbors that rhinos can attract tourism dollars over the long-term but horn poaching can only be lucrative until the last rhino is killed.

These poor poachers often sneak onto the private game parks to secure the prized horns,

But wildlife officials like Ken Maggs, head of poaching unit in Kruger, are very worried about the emergence of other hunters, apparently with money behind them, who hire helicopters and gun down rhinos with high-powered rifles.

Andrew Parker says these poachers need to face the full force of the law and long jail sentences before it is too late for the rhinos.