Poaching has long been a problem in Africa, even as the countries there have taken steps to preserve their natural resources and protect endangered species. Despite their best efforts however, the illegal slaughter of animals seems to be on the rise, particularly in South Africa, where poachers recently killed off the last female white rhino in a popular game preserve in order to claim the animal’s much coveted horn.
The incident took place last week in the Krugersdorp game reserve, located not far from Johannesburg. The park attracts around 200,000 visitors annually, with many coming with the hopes of catching a glimpse of the exotic wildlife that roams there, including the elusive white rhino. A nearby private airport shuttles in visitors who don’t want to make the drive, and investigators believe that airport may have been used by the poachers as well.
Commonly, these illegal hunters use a helicopter to stalk their prey from the sky, then use a tranquillizer to knock them out. While they are unconscious, they’ll land, saw off the rhino horn, and be gone in a matter of minutes. Because of the size of the parks, the rangers usually don’t even know that they’ve come and gone, and the animal often ends up bleeding to death or dying of an overdose of the tranquillizer.
The demand for rhino horn has been on the rise in Asia as the economy there has continued to expand. Many traditional medicines in that part of the world use keratin fibers as one of their main ingredients, and rhino horns are made up almost entirely of the fine, compressed hair-like substance. In 2009, 129 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa alone. This year, that number is already at 136. Prior to 2005, the average number of rhinos killed was just 36. Meanwhile, the number of black and white rhinos living in Africa has fallen to an estimated 18,000 animals.
South Africa has begun to crack down harder on these crimes, with stiffer sentences for those who are caught. For instance, a Vietnamese poacher was recently put behind bars for 10 years for trying to smuggle horns out of the country, and there are plenty more cases to be heard in the near future. Hopefully these efforts will help stem the tide of these brutal attacks, but many fear that while demand remains high, there will always be those willing to risk the consequences.
[Photo credit: Princess.Tilly via WikiMedia Commons]