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South Africa is fighting a war to save its endangered rhinoceros population.
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.
More from GlobalPost: South Africa: rhino poaching at record high, WWF says
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.”