South Africa, which has the world’s largest population of rhinos, lost at least 193 of the animals to poaching in the first six months of the year, said WWF International, the conservation group.
At this pace, the number of rhinos killed may exceed the record 333 killed last year, the Gland, Switzerland-based group said in an e-mailed statement, citing figures from South Africa National Parks.
South Africa has made 123 arrests, with six convictions, for poaching this year, adding to last year’s 165 arrests and four convictions, WWF said. Swaziland, which borders South Africa, lost its first rhino to poaching in almost 20 years in June, raising concern that the crime may be spreading. Rhinos are targeted for their horns, which are smuggled out of South Africa and used in traditional medicine as an aphrodisiac in East Asia and as dagger handles in Yemen and Oman.
“We cannot allow poaching to proliferate across rhino range countries,” Joseph Okori, coordinator of WWF’s African Rhino Program, said in the statement. “Swift prosecutions of wildlife crimes and strict sentences for perpetrators will serve as a deterrent to potential criminals. Poachers should be shown no leniency.”
South Africa has a population of about 19,400 white rhinos and 1,678 black rhinos, according to the parks department. Of those 12,000 white rhinos live in the Kruger National Park, which has a 300 kilometer (186-mile) border with Mozambique, making it easy for poachers to escape.
White rhinos may take their name from a mispronunciation of the Dutch word for wide, as a description of their lip. They weigh as much as 2.7 metric tons. Black rhinos weigh up to 1.35 tons. There are also three Asian species - Javan, Indian and Sumatran.
Rhino poaching is an organized crime, with hunters sometimes using helicopters and automatic weapons, WWF said. Kruger, which was established 113 years ago and spans about 2 million hectares (4.94 million acres), has been the hardest hit by poaching, losing 126 rhinos this year, adding to the 146 killed last year, WWF said.
In 2009 the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species estimated that globally rhino poaching was at a 15-year high.
The rise in poaching in South Africa is not the first time authorities have had to react to combat syndicates targeting the animals.
In the 1980s and early 1990s poachers targeted black rhinos in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley with automatic rifles, prompting the government to order a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy against poachers and to move some wild rhinos to private land where they were trailed around the clock by guards.
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