Anti-poaching rangers on patrol in South Africa’s Kruger National Park shot and killed three men who were believed to be rhino poachers this past Wednesday. Officials indicated that the rangers were on a routine operation within the park when they came across the men who had reportedly crossed the border from Mozambique. A firefight ensued and the three poachers were fatally wounded.
This incident is only the latest clash between soldiers and poachers in South Africa. As illegal poaching has continued to increase across the country, these types of encounters have become more frequent. Rhino horns remain in high demand for use in traditional medicines throughout Asia and people are increasingly more willing to risk their lives to obtain the valuable commodity.
According to a government report released last week, 188 rhinos have already been killed in South Africa since the start of the year and 135 of those were poached in Kruger alone. The country is home to more than 18,000 white rhinos, which is nearly the entire population that remains in Africa. About 5000 of the more rare black rhino also live in South Africa.
As the value of rhino horns has increased, the level of sophistication shown by poachers has risen as well. Many now employ helicopters to spot the animals from the air and then use high-powered tranquilizer guns to knock them unconscious. With the creature safely asleep, they then land, use a machete or other blade to cut off the horn and are back in the air in a matter of minutes. The speed with which they strike makes it difficult to catch them in the act, which has frustrated South African officials.
With rhino population numbers already dangerously low across Africa, the continued poaching of these animals has become a real concern. If this trend doesn’t change soon, there is a real chance that the creatures could be gone from the continent before the end of the century.
This 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.
According 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.
Back in January we posted a story about five rhino poachers being killed in two separate gun fights in South Africa. A month later, things haven’t exactly improved for the illegal hunters, with four more being killed in the subsequent weeks since the original story. It seems that 2011 is off to a rough start, as barely six weeks in, and twice as many poachers have been killed than in all of 2010.
The higher number of fatalities isn’t just because the anti-poaching squads have stepped up their patrols and improved their training techniques however. According to this story from the AP, the number of poachers has greatly increased in 2011 as well. Demand for rhino horns continues to rise in parts of Asia, where they are used as key ingredients in traditional medicines, and as a result there is a lot of money to be made on the illegal black market.
In 2010, 333 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone, nearly tripling the number from the previous year. On a recent trip to the country, I was told that 2011 was off to an ominous start as well, with a high number of illegal kills already taking place this year. The general outlook for the future wasn’t a positive one either. Rhinos are already on the endangered species lists, and they’re being slaughtered at an alarming rate. It seems that as long as their is demand for the prized rhino horns, there will be plenty of people willing to take the risk to harvest them.
If the current trend holds for the rest of the year, it seems it is going to be a bloody one for the rhinos in South Africa, as well as the men that hunt them.