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Helicopters, DNA Targeted to Fight South African Rhino Poachers

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Aug. 27 (Bloomberg) -- South Africa may use rhinoceros DNA and track low-flying helicopters to fight a record surge in poaching that is threatening the endangered animals.

Conservationists expect more than 300 of the animals to be killed by poachers this year as crime syndicates sell the horns in east Asia where they are in demand for their supposed aphrodisiac properties as well as other medicinal uses, Faan Coetzee, a project manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, said at a conference today at Sandfontein, in South Africa’s northern Limpopo Province. That would be more than double last year’s 122.

Rhino poachers are using helicopters to find rhinos both in national parks and on private game farms and the Endangered Wildlife Trust is working with aviation authorities to find ways of tracking low-flying helicopters. Game farmers are also being urged to take DNA samples from their stock to help prosecute poachers by linking dead rhinos to horns. South Africa is home to 93 percent of Africa’s rhino population.

“We are not doing enough,” Coetzee said. “We need to catch them on the ground.”

The trust, together with South Africa National Parks, private landowners, law and environmental officials and customs officers will next month start a wildlife crime reaction unit to target rhino poachers. So far this year 186 rhinos have been poached.

South Africa has a population of about 19,000 white rhinos and 1,670 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.

“As soon as they cross the border our police can do nothing,” Coetzee said.

15-Year High

White rhinos take their name from the Afrikaans word “weit,” meaning wide, as a description of their lip. They weigh as much as 2.7 metric tons. Black rhinos weigh up to 1.35 tons.

Rhino killings across Africa may have hit a 15-year high last year, according to a forecast by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international agreement that represents 175 countries.

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 translocate some wild rhinos to private land where they were trailed around the clock by guards.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicky Smith in Johannesburg at nsmith38@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Vidya Root at vroot@bloomberg.net

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