October 6, 2010

South Africa Intends To Battle Rhino Poachers

South Africa on Tuesday launched a new wildlife crime unit that will take rhino poaching head on in an attempt to stop the dramatic surge of senseless killings for the animal's horn that is sold for use in traditional medicines.

Rhino poaching has climbed in South Africa this year, with 227 rhinos slaughtered so far, almost double the 122 killed in all of last year.

A two-day rhino summit meeting was assembled on Tuesday by Environment Minister Buyelwa Sonjica to get wildlife experts and police together to start a new crime-fighting unit geared toward bringing poachers to justice.

"The National Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit will, among others, react immediately when a serious wildlife crime has been committed and be able to detect and investigate smuggling of wildlife and wildlife products," Sonjica said.

The new crime unit will bring national and provincial wildlife authorities together, who will then coordinate with law enforcement to act quickly when new cases of poaching are found.

There is an international ban on the trade of rhino horns, but black market demand has fueled a rise in high-tech poaching with sharpshooters tracking and darting the animals from helicopters and then hacking off the horn while they lie unconscious. The rhinos are simply left there to die, according to police.

The horns are desired for medical and ornamental use in East and Southeast Asia, where it is used to treat fever and high blood pressure. The economic boom in East Asia has driven the demand of rhino horn, with buyers willing to pay up to 2,500 dollars for a single horn.

South Africa currently has 26 poaching cases before the courts, with most of the 80 people arrested hailing from Vietnam.

In one case, two veterinarians, a game farm owner and a pilot were arrested last month on charges of running a poaching ring near the world-famous Kruger National Park.

Just last weekend, five more people were arrested in connection with the killing of at least five rhinos in KwaZulu-Natal province, according to authorities.

Sonjica said poachers are a mighty force, "but I think it's a force we can defeat."

A meeting between South Africa and Vietnam is planned to discuss rhino poaching, said Sonjica, who is going to China on Wednesday to speak on the issue.