Rhino Poaching Up 50 Percent In South Africa

Rhino poaching up 50% in South AfricaThe South African government has released statistics on the number of rhinos poached in that country last year, and the news isn’t especially good. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a record number of 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2012, representing a 50% increase over 2011 when 448 of the animals lost their lives to poachers.

Most of the rhino poaching took place inside Kruger National Park, one of South Africa’s most popular destinations for visitors. The 7500-square-mile Kruger is one of the top safari destinations in the world and one of the best places to spot wild rhinos. But its remote and rugged location also makes it difficult to police and combat poaching. As a result, of the 668 rhinos killed last year, 425 were claimed inside the park.

Rhino poaching has been on the rise in recent years because of the increasing demand for their horns in parts of Asia. The horns are ground up into powder and used in traditional medicines in places like Vietnam and China, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support such uses. As the WWF report notes, rhino horns are used in such dubious remedies as hangover cures.

When poachers claim their prized rhino horns they typically shoot the animals with tranquilizers, knocking them unconscious for a time. While the creature slumbers, they then proceed to hack off their horns using sharp axes or knives to brutally accomplish their task. The rhino then bleeds to death from these wounds and their corpses are generally found by park rangers hours or days after they have been attacked.

These ever-increasing poaching numbers have put the rhino in jeopardy across Africa. Several species are critically endangered there as a result of these crimes.

[Photo Credit: Kraig Becker]

Google To Fund Unmanned Drones To Hunt Poachers In Africa

Google funded drones will soon patrol the skies over AfricaAs part of their new Global Impact Awards, Internet search giant Google has pledged $5 million to the World Wildlife Fund in an effort to help fight illegal poaching in Africa and Asia. The funds will be used to create a sophisticated data network for tracking the movement of animals and will employ unmanned surveillance drones to hunt poachers in the field.

In their announcement of the grant, Google estimated that the global illegal wildlife trade is worth $7-$10 billion annually. Much of that value is comprised of the sale of ivory tusks harvested from elephants and the horns of rhinos, two animals that could face extinction if poaching is allowed to continue unabated.

Being a technology company, Google of course hopes to use sophisticated equipment to help combat the poachers. In addition to using drones to survey the landscape, the company is helping the WWF to develop new animal tags that are both cheaper and more advanced than what they’ve used in the past. The new tags would not only be able to track the movement of the creatures but also collect more information on their behavior. They’ll even be able to text updates and alerts on the location of the animals directly to the mobile phones of park rangers.

But it is the drones that hold the greatest potential for helping to fight the war against poachers. These tiny aircraft will be remotely piloted and feature a host of onboard technology that could prove useful in stopping the illegal harvesting of animals. With high-definition cameras, infrared sensors and built-in microphones, the aircraft will provide opportunities to observe and react to events taking place on the ground much more quickly than in the past.

Exactly which kind of drone system the WWF will use hasn’t been announced and it is likely that they’ll go through an evaluation and testing process before they purchase the aircraft. These will be unarmed UAV’s, however, so don’t look for any missile strikes to take place against the poachers. But then again, considering the Obama administration recently announced that poaching is a threat to U.S. national security interests, who knows exactly who will be in control of the drones over Africa and Asia.

[Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force]

Is Illegal Poaching In Africa And Asia A Threat To US Security?

Illegal poaching is now seen as a potential threat to U.S. national securityThe U.S. intelligence community has been issued a new charge from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Organizations such as the CIA and NSA are being asked to assess the impact that illegal poaching across Africa and Asia is having on U.S. security interests abroad. This shift in policy indicates that the administration may be preparing to get tough on the underground black market that has been built on the bones of thousands of slaughtered animals over the past few years.

While meeting with a group of conservationists, environmentalists and ambassadors at the State Department last week, Clinton called for a unified strategy across a host of regions to help combat the illegal trade of elephant ivory and rhino horns. Those two items in particular have sparked the recent rise in poaching in Africa as suppliers look to fill the rising demand in parts of Asia. In launching this new initiative, the Secretary of State pledged $100,000 to help get new enforcement efforts off the ground, but perhaps more importantly was her announcement that the U.S. intelligence community would lend their talents to the fight for the first time.

At first glance, using U.S. intelligent assets to fight illegal poaching doesn’t necessarily seem like a good use of resources. But much of the poaching is done by rebel forces and local bandits who then use the funds to purchase better weapons and more advanced equipment. Well-armed and funded militias can be a direct threat to the stability of allies throughout Africa and Asia, where a number of fledgling governments are struggling with so many other important social and economic issues. Additionally, because poachers move across borders with impunity and ship their precious cargoes around the globe, the U.S. intelligence community seems best suited to track their movements. Their efforts could lead to not only finding the poachers while they are in the field, but also tracking down buyers in Asia who are funding these hunts.This move comes at a time when poachers are becoming more armed and using more sophisticated tactics. It is not uncommon for the illegal hunters to employ the use of helicopters, night-vision goggles and sophisticated weaponry when stalking their prey, and when confronted by local authorities, they are generally packing bigger and better guns than their foes. That has made combating the poachers extremely difficult, as they are often in and out of a game preserve before anyone knows they are there, and when they are caught in the act, it frequently turns into a deadly firefight.

Secretary of State Clinton’s announcement also takes illegal poaching out of the realm of conservation and puts it squarely into the national security arena. That is a definite change in tone over what we’ve seen out of past administrations, which generally seemed more focused on bigger international issues. Obama may consider poaching a big enough issue to take on in his second term, particularly since he has deep family ties in Kenya, another nation hit hard by poaching.

The Washington Post says that an estimated 10,000 elephants are killed each year in Tanzania alone, which gives you an indication of just how bad this problem has become. In some parts of Africa, rhinos have already been hunted to extinction and if this wholesale slaughter continues, the elephant may not be far behind. I don’t care if the U.S. government did have to come up with an excuse about national security to get more involved, I’m just happy they are taking steps to crack down on this awful trade.

[Photo credit: Kraig Becker]

African governments doing more to stop poaching of endangered species

poaching, rhinoThis year in Africa, the fight between law enforcement and poachers of endangered species has flared into a war.

In the first two months of 2011, nine poachers were shot dead in South Africa. Despite this, poaching is up. In that nation alone, 333 rhinos were killed in 2010, and there have been 309 rhinos poached so far this year. It looks like the illegal hunters are set to break a grisly record.

Now South Africa is holding talks with Vietnam to reduce the demand for rhino horn, which some Asians use as an aphrodisiac and as a cure for cancer. Sometimes the horns are kept whole as curios or for religious rituals, as this 1930s photo of a Tibetan monk from the Bundesarchiv shows. The two governments are working on a plan to fight organized syndicates that trade in animal parts.

South Africa isn’t the only country seeing trouble, and isn’t the only country fighting back. In Zimbabwe, poachers have been poisoning water holes so they can kill animals silently and avoid detection by park guards. At least nine elephants, five lions, two buffaloes, and several vultures are known to have died.

Meanwhile, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are going to sign a treaty to cooperate across their borders to stop poaching of mountain gorillas and other species. The treaty also sets up joint research and education about the region’s diverse flora and fauna.

Poachers claiming South African rhinos at record pace

South African rhinos are being killed at an alarming rateAccording to a new report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), poachers in South Africa have been killing rhinos at an alarming rate this year. The WWF says that 193 rhinos have already been claimed by poachers in 2011, which is far ahead of 2010, when 333 rhinos were killed during the entire year.

South Africa has the highest population of rhinos in the world, with more than 19,400 white rhinos and another 1600+ black rhinos calling the country home. Of those, 12,000 white rhinos live inside Kruger National Park, which shares a 186-mile border with Mozambique. Many poachers sneak across the border from that country, often stalking their prey with high powered rifles and helicopters, and then slip back before authorities even know they’ve been there.

Most poachers are looking to harvest the horns of rhinos, which are made up of keratin, the same material that is in our hair or fingernails. Many cultures believe that the horn has special healing properties, and it is often used in traditional medicines throughout the world. In recent years, there has been a spike in demand for rhino horns in Asia, despite the fact that it is illegal to kill the creatures. As a result, the price for a horn has gone up and poachers have been more active.
South Africa takes the threat of poaching very seriously, and this year alone there have been 123 arrests for the crime. They have also instituted harsher penalties for those who are convicted as well, including higher fines and longer jail terms. So far those measures don’t seem to be much of a deterrent. There have even been a number of poachers killed in shootouts with park rangers this year as well, and yet they still continue to kill the animals and harvest their much coveted horns.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Kruger National Park, where I not only ran into a group of anti-poaching park rangers, I had the chance to chat with locals about the issue. They were all greatly concerned about the brutal attacks on the wildlife there, and expressed their outrage that foreigners were crossing the border to kill the rhinos. They also were unsure exactly what could be done to prevent it from happening, as it seems impossible to be able to patrol the border on a constant basis. Now, just a few months later, the rhinos of Kruger are being killed off at the rate of more than one per day.

South Africa's Anti-Poaching Squad