JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – A tense war rages across the Bushveld here, over the fate of the rhinoceros.
On one side, heavily armed poachers are killing rhinos at a ferocious rate, at times deploying helicopters and high-powered rifles to claim their quarry. They are cashing in on a high-stakes trade, fueled by the erroneous belief among increasingly rich Chinese and Vietnamese that rhino horn can cure cancer, among other maladies.
Squaring off against them, South Africa is resorting to extreme tactics to save a fragile population that may be slumping towards extinction. The country is deploying helicopters, radar technology and army troops. Some are even attempting to poison rhino horns to dissuade would-be consumers.
At times, the conflict spills over into actual armed battle between the two sides.
Conservationists are shocked that the problem has become so grave. By the latter half of the 20th century, South Africa’s rhino resurgence was considered one of the world’s great conservation victories.
In the late 19th century, decades of trophy hunting by rich white men in pith helmets decimated the white rhino population. At least one variety, the southern white rhino, had nearly been wiped out. For a while they were thought to be extinct, until a few dozen were discovered around iMfolozi, the former hunting grounds of Zulu King Shaka, in the 1890s.
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From fewer than 500 white rhinos in the 1950s, South Africa’s population has grown to about 18,500. There are also about 2,500 critically endangered black rhinos. (All rhinos are grey in color; the term "white" is thought to come from the Afrikaans word for "wide," referring to the shape of the white rhino's mouth.)
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But four years ago, a new siege began. This time, it is led by poachers who shoot or tranquilize rhinos before brutally hacking off their horns.
In the past, low-level poaching saw small amounts of illegal horn sent to Yemen to make dagger handles, and East Asia for use in “traditional medicine.”
Although rhino horn is essentially fingernail – both are composed of keratin — these days it fetches up to $65,000 a kilogram in Vietnam and China, according to conservation experts who track the illicit market. The newly rich buy it as a cure for cancer, a fever or even just a hangover.
Demand from Vietnam has grown particularly fast. Some conservationists point to claims by a high-level Vietnamese government official that rhino horn cured his cancer, which is said to have spurred demand.
The new crisis has escalated quickly. An average of 13 rhinos a year were killed by poachers for most of the last decade, considered a manageable level. But suddenly, in 2008, that number rose to 83. It has increased exponentially every year since, hitting a record high of 448 dead rhinos in 2011 despite a barrage of new efforts to stop the poaching. Because rhinos are an endangered species, the South African National Parks closely monitor their numbers.
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Security has been ramped up at private reserves and national parks, and rhinos have been fitted with tracking devices and microchips. Game rangers rely on high-tech equipment, including night-vision goggles, while border guards at Johannesburg’s international airport have received special training to detect horns.
Delegations of South African police and officials have traveled to Vietnam for meetings with their counterparts.
But so far, nothing has helped. At least 58 rhinos have been killed just two months into 2012 – a year slated to be the worst yet for poaching.
Some experts in South Africa are warning that the tipping point has been reached. Population increase has been reversed. More rhinos are dying than are being born.
After 70 years of conservation work, the white rhino may once again be heading towards extinction.
It is “extremely concerning” that despite the efforts to combat poaching, the rampant killing continues, said Kirsty Brebner, rhino project manager for Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African conservation group.
“It’s an extremely complex situation, with organized crimes links,” she said. “There is no one silver bullet, no easy solution.”
Rhino hunting is legal in South Africa under a strict permit system that allows a hunter to kill one rhino a year and export the horn with the proper papers.
Legally hunting a rhino costs tens of thousands of dollars — ranging from $50,000 up to a whopping $100,000, according to game hunting websites, depending upon the costs of the license to shoot a rhino, the prices of the game lodge operators and the guides' fees.
But the rising value of rhino horn in Asian medicine markets has made the expense of legal game hunting financially attractive.
Rhino hunting statutes are intended to limit the pursuit to genuine hunters, excluding those who seek the horn for Chinese medical use, which itself is illegal. Many game lodge owners prohibit those not believed to be genuine hunters from hunting at their lodge. But some who want the money will do so anyway.
A majority of rhino hunting permits applied for in South Africa are by Vietnamese nationals.
The Vietnamese hunters come for the horn, not the hunting experience. Photos show tiny Vietnamese women posing uncomfortably with huge rhinos. In one rather bizarre case, a Thai man is accused of being the kingpin who ran a rhino smuggling ring that hired sex workers to pose as hunters, in order to skirt the permit laws. He has been charged in South Africa and his case is to go to court in June.
This is called pseudo-hunting because it dodges the laws limiting trophy hunting. This type of hunting is being done by people who aren’t genuine hunters but just want the horn to take back to Vietnam and sell for big bucks even though that is illegal under CITES. Hunters are allowed to keep the horn and export it, but it must remain in their possession – they can’t sell it on, or even destroy it, under CITES.
In addition to the pseudo-hunting has come an increase in poaching, a lucrative crime fueled by multinational crime syndicates that use sophisticated methods including helicopters and high-powered rifles, and pay big money for local knowledge.
South Africa has been targeted because of its success in conservation: 90 percent of all the rhinos in Africa are here.
Hardest hit has been the famous Kruger National Park, which lost 252 rhinos to poaching in 2011, according to the South African National Parks (SANParks). The park has been waging a full-out war to stop it.
According to David Mabunda, CEO of South African National Parks, 232 suspected poachers were arrested last year in the country’s parks. The battle has been bloody. Twenty-six poaching suspects were killed in conflicts with park rangers and other enforcement officers.
Despite these efforts, in the first two months of 2012, already 26 rhinos have been lost to poachers at Kruger park. Authorities have removed signboards where tourists mark the location of rhinos, and other big game, to help each other with wildlife spotting; park officials believed the signs were also being used by poachers.
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Kruger park also recently announced it is deploying an extra 150 rangers to help protect the rhinos, while its borders are being patrolled by South African soldiers.
The country’s environmental affairs department is re-erecting a 95-mile electric fence along Kruger’s border with Mozambique, where some of the poachers are thought to come from.
Last month, three rhino poachers from Mozambique were sentenced by a South African court to 25 years in jail each, an unusually long sentence, after being found guilty of hunting rhinos in the Kruger park.
“It is worrying that we are still losing such a high number of rhinos throughout the country,” Mabunda said. “The most encouraging area in this whole saga is the increasing number of arrests and the steeper sentences that are being imposed.
Ian Player, a South African conservationist (and brother of legendary golfer Gary Player), has been credited with helping to save the white rhino from extinction, under the massive Operation Rhino project that started in 1961.
Player, in a recent opinion article about the poaching crisis, described seeing his first rhino while on an anti-poaching patrol at iMfolozi in 1952. He compared the “sacredness about their presence” with that of a tiny, intricate gold sculpture of a rhino that was famously discovered atop South Africa’s Mapungubwe Hill, the site of an African kingdom from 900 years ago.
“Those of us involved in the original Operation Rhino looked back with satisfaction and thought we could leave this planet knowing we had done a good job,” Player wrote.
He added: “Then, the rhino killing began.”