South Africa's rhino war heats up

PALALA, South Africa — The rhino owners of Palala, a community dotted with exotic game ranches deep in the bushveld of South Africa’s Waterberg mountains, don’t know who to trust.

Gangs of poachers have been killing nearly a rhino a day in South Africa, in a surge of attacks that has shaken this wildlife-rich country.

The poachers have hit Palala. At Riaan Kotze’s game ranch here, five rhinos have been killed for their horns in the past year.

On another private game reserve nearby, Phila, a 5-year-old black rhino female was shot at least nine times in two separate attacks but she managed to survive. Phila was attacked by the poachers even though her horn was cut off to deter them. The protective measure didn’t work as they went after the stub of horn that was left.

Phila has become a South African celebrity of sorts because she succeeded in surviving the brutal attacks. To protect her, the rhino was taken this week to the Johannesburg Zoo to recover under tight security and the close watch of veterinarians.

Earlier this month, the high-profile arrest of 11 people who police say were part of a poaching syndicate that operated around the country, was a welcome bit of good news. But among the suspects who appeared in court were two wildlife veterinarians that had taken care of animals in the Palala area, including at Kotze's private ranch.

Frustrated and worried, Kotze has turned to neighboring rhino owners, hosting an emergency meeting this month to band together as a community against the poaching threat. More than two dozen game reserve managers and owners travelled to his lodge for their first-ever crisis meeting, most of them dressed in the local uniform of tan safari shorts and shirts.

The arrest of the veterinarians, trusted members of the community, has set the wildlife owners on edge rather than reassuring them.

“At this stage we need to say, enough is enough. We need to take this situation into our own hands,” said Kotze, who manages the Inkwe Valley Game Ranch.

South Africans, horrified by the sudden rise in rhino poaching and the images of brutally killed animals with their horns hacked off, are fighting back with a range of campaigns, from radio fundraising drives to an awareness booth at the Johannesburg Sexpo, an adults-only exposition.

The poaching crisis has hit a nerve in a country known for its conservation of wild animals. It was in South Africa that rhinos were brought back from the brink of extinction, and the country is now home to more than 90 percent of all white rhinos in the wild.

And it is because of this that South Africa has been hit hard by the recent escalation of rhino poaching. Sophisticated gangs traffic the rhino horns mainly to Vietnam, where they are in demand as a cure for cancer, though experts say they have no medicinal value.

At a “Rhino Summit” earlier this month in Pretoria, Environment Minister Buyelwa Sonjica said more than 300 rhinos will have been killed by the end of 2010. She announced a new special unit to deal with poaching, and said that an elite team of investigators, known as the Hawks, has also been assigned to focus on rhino poaching.

Sonjica has since travelled to Vietnam for a bilateral meeting, as well as to China, where she was expected to raise the issue of poaching.

In the Palala community, the plan is to try and secure the area by closing roads, monitoring unusual activity and setting up a radio communication system to link all the farms in a region that has only patchy mobile-phone access.

Most wildlife owners already have increased their security. Some have started feeding their rhinos in a higher-security area, in order to keep a closer watch. Kotze now has 16 scouts guarding his rhinos.

Private security firms have offered protection for rhinos, but some game reserve owners were hesitant about the high cost and nervous about bringing in outside workers. “They don’t know who to trust,” Kotze said.

In South Africa’s North West province, some rhinos have been fitted with GPS devices so that they can be tracked. The GPS chips, inserted into the rhino’s horn, are also linked to an alarm system that will alert game rangers of unusual movement.

Other groups have launched their own efforts to fight the poachers. Conservationists are considering adopting Phila, the black rhino who survived two attacks, as a “poster child” for the cause. They have asked the American rapper 50 Cent, who also survived being shot nine times, to take part in an awareness campaign.

At the recent sex expo in Johannesburg, mixed among the exhibitors promoting adult products was a booth from a group called Mission Rhino, that displayed photos of the devastating effects of rhino poaching.

WWF, the international conservation organization, ran an awareness campaign that included a “Make Noise for Rhinos Day,” where South Africans were asked to blow their vuvuzelas or other types of horns to call for international action against rhino poaching.

The recently retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also spoken out about the problem, calling for an end to the “butchering” of rhinos.

“It is robbing our people of their precious natural heritage, robbing our nation of its ecological diversity, and severely embarrassing our nation abroad,” he said.

And a Johannesburg radio station campaign recently raised $150,000 from listeners in a “Rhinothon.” Rhino owners from the Palala area advocated that some of the money raised should help fund protection efforts on private reserves, not just at national parks. In South Africa, an estimated 25 percent of white rhinos are on private land, and owners are facing escalating costs of protecting their animals.

“Us guys are fighting this battle alone," said Kotze. "There’s no government funds.”