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Surge in rhino poaching devastates African populations

COLUMN ONE

Organized gangs decimate Zimbabwe herds and may wipe out South Africa's endangered black rhinos within a decade. Ranchers trying to save the animals find heartbreak amid carcasses shorn of horns.

March 16, 2010|By Robyn Dixon

Game rancher Jones, who leads an action group of rhino owners to combat poaching, said incidents are reported every other day.

His phone beeps constantly with text messages alerting him to poaching incidents and sightings of suspected poachers.

"There's another one," he said, grabbing his phone.

The police, he said, are little help. In one recent case, they arrived four days after a group of rhinos was killed. In another, a police officer picked up an ax abandoned by the poachers, destroying any fingerprints.

The South African government disbanded the police force's endangered-species unit in 2003. The government last year promised to bring back a special-investigations unit -- but critics believe it's not enough to make a difference.

"This is our cultural heritage," Jones said. "People come to South Africa to see the Big Five, not the Big Four," he added, a reference to South Africa's five biggest wildlife draws: rhinos, elephants, lions, leopards and cape buffalo.

China's recent thrust into Africa in a rush for resources is a major factor in the illegal rhino horn and ivory trade, analysts believe, because China remains the largest market. Rhino horn, made of keratin, the same substance that forms fingernails, hooves, feathers and hair, has long been used in Chinese medicinal tonics.

Zimbabwe's collapse added to the problem, with corrupt government, army and wildlife officials reportedly involved in poaching and smuggling rhino horn and ivory. The airport in that country's capital, Harare, is reportedly a key transit hub.

In South Africa, Vietnamese diplomatic officials have allegedly been involved in rhino horn buying and smuggling. Reports in Vietnam that a government official was "cured" of cancer by rhino horn appear to have spurred Asian demand.

Many fear that the Asian market is so ancient and entrenched, there's not much a small group of farmers can do to save the species. Some support the idea of rhino farming -- regularly pruning horns, which grow back -- to meet the demand and drive down prices. Others argue that legalizing the trade would only fuel demand, putting the creatures at even more risk. After the killings of the baby rhino and two adults, Uys put his energies into Benni and Bettie. Benni, more unpredictable than Longhorn, sometimes charges unexpectedly. Bettie is docile and sweet. Uys worries about their survival almost as if they were his children, just as he once worried about Weerkind and her family.

"Longhorn and Weerkind and Sister were my passion. But since they have been poached, I have devoted all my time to [Benni and Bettie]. And now I think I love them just as much as I loved the others."

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

How to help: The Endangered Wildlife Trust ( www.ewt.org.za) is working to improve the protection of rhinos in southern Africa.

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