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South African rhinos under fire

Poachers kill rhinos for their horns in alarming numbers.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South Africa is seeing a major escalation in the number of rhinos killed illegally as gangs of poachers go to increasingly sophisticated lengths to steal their horns.

With powerful crime syndicates in South Africa behind the killings, fueled by demand for horns in Vietnam and China, conservationists worry that the war with rhino poachers is only just beginning.

So far 124 rhinos have been poached this year, more than the 122 that were killed in all of 2009. This is a dramatic increase compared to 2007, when only 13 rhinos were lost.

A gruesome case of poaching, using a typically high-tech method, took place in KwaZulu-Natal province just a few weeks ago.

The poachers flew into a private game reserve by helicopter and while hovering above, shot tranquilizer darts into a white rhino cow that had a month-old baby nearby. They landed and using a chainsaw, roughly hacked off the sedated rhino’s horn. But in the process they cut her whole nose off, leaving a massive wound that would normally kill a rhino. The animal somehow survived.

“It’s a miracle that she is still alive,” said Faan Coetzee, head of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Rhino Security Project, which works to help private landowners such as game parks to prevent poaching.

The baby, meanwhile, was missing for days only to be later found dead from dehydration and neglect. It is suspected that the rhino calf ran away during the attack and the mother — terribly injured and with no sense of smell — was not able to locate it.

South Africa is home to 93 percent of all rhinos in Africa, said Coetzee, which makes the country a prime hunting ground for those seeking rhino horns.

The poachers are motivated by “greed,” he said, with the bulk of demand coming from China and Vietnam where horns are ground up and used in traditional medicine thought to reduce fever and even cure cancer.

“There has never been such a high rate of escalation (in poaching),” said Wanda Mkutshulwa, head of corporate communications for South African National Parks. “We are concerned about what’s happening throughout the country.”

South Africa National Parks have lost 55 rhinos so far this year. The country’s largest and best-known game reserve, the Kruger National Park, which is home to an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 white rhinos and 600 critically endangered black rhinos, has become a battleground against poachers. The South African military patrols the park borders in an attempt to thwart poachers.

Park rangers are using improved surveillance technology, like night-vision equipment and modern radio communication technology to replace the old radio system, to keep up with the poachers. High-tech invisible tracking devices have also been attached to some rhinos at Kruger.