Rhino Syndicates Targeted as South Africa Battles With Poachers

South Africa pledged to increase efforts to combat international syndicates illegally trading rhino horns after a record number of the pachyderms were slaughtered last year amid growing demand in Asia.

Poachers killed a record 1,215 rhinos in South Africa last year, up from 1,004 in 2013, as the country struggles to protect the animals. Demand for rhino horns has climbed in Asian nations, including China and Vietnam, because of a belief they can cure diseases such as cancer.

“It’s clear that existing interventions need to be strengthened and we will do so,” Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa told reporters in Pretoria. South Africa has collaborated with Interpol groups and is now working on “more effective sharing of information between government enforcement agencies,” she said.

A majority of the rhinos, 827, were slaughtered in the Kruger National Park, a nature reserve the size of Israel that borders on Mozambique, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs. So far in 2015, 49 rhinos have been poached throughout South Africa, Molewa said.

The southern African nation, home to more than 90 percent of the world’s white rhinos, has set up a protection zone within the Kruger Park, introduced new equipment and relocated animals to safer areas in an effort to reduce poaching.

It’s also considering advocating the legalization of the global rhino-horn trade to reduce trafficking by syndicates.

‘Worryingly High’

The number of alleged poachers, syndicate members and couriers arrested rose to 386 in 2014, a record, from 343 a year earlier, according to the ministry.

“Significant progress” has been made implementing anti-poaching measures, including the relocation of rhinos and international collaboration, the minister said. “Nevertheless, the figures remain worryingly high.”

While the market for rhino horn is concentrated in Asia, the trade is widespread, Molewa said. In December, 16 members of a horn smuggling syndicate were arrested in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. The price of rhino horns, more valuable than gold by weight, may range from $65,000 to as much as $95,000 a kilogram (2.2 pounds) in Asia.

“Rhino poaching is now recognised on the international stage as a symptom of growing involvement of sophisticated transnational criminal syndicates,” Morne du Plessis, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa, said in an e-mailed statement. “This battle impacts our national security and economy and will need everyone to work together to combat these threats. There is no time to lose.”

White Rhinos

In the last quarter of 2014, South Africa moved 56 rhinos away from known poaching hotspots, with a further 100 sent to neighboring states, the ministry said.

None of the monitored animals moved to new locations, known as Intensive Protection Zones, have so far been killed, Molewa said. Further relocations will take place in 2015, she said.

“The very reason most of the world’s rhino continue to exist in the wild today is because of the efforts of South Africa,” said the minister. Her department is also working with companies, including defense contractor, Denel SOC Ltd., to produce technology to combat poaching, including unmanned aerial vehicles, she said.

“There must be no doubt that the ultimate measure will be numbers,” said Major General Johan Jooste, head of the South African National Parks anti-poaching task force. While authorities aren’t yet winning the battle against poachers, they’re stopping even more from being killed, he said.

South Africa’s government has received 20 bids during tender process for the purchase of white rhinos from the Kruger Park, Molewa said. Proceeds from the sale will be allocated to a ring-fenced fund, she said.

White rhinos, the bigger of the two types of the animal found in Africa, can weigh more than 2 metric tons. About 40 percent of black rhinos are in South Africa, according to the Save the Rhino charity.

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