Johannesburg - A record number of
rhinos were poached this year in South Africa, home to the
greatest number of the animals, as rising demand in Asia for
their horns led to increased killings of the threatened species.
At least 443 rhinos have been killed in South Africa in
2011, up from 333 last year, the national park service and
The street value of rhinoceros horns has soared to about
$65 000 a kilogram, making it more expensive than gold, platinum
and in many cases cocaine, as a belief - with no basis in
science - has taken hold in recent years in parts of Asia that
ingesting it can cure or prevent cancer.
South Africa, home to more than 20 000 rhinos, was losing
about 15 animals a year a decade ago. But poaching increased
dramatically from about 2007 as a growing affluent class in
places such as Vietnam and Thailand began spending more on rhino
horn for traditional medicine.
The number of rhinoceroses dying unnatural deaths in South
Africa, either through illegal poaching or legal hunts, has
reached a level likely to lead to population decline, according
to a study by Richard Emslie, an expert in the field.
About half of poaching takes place in the Kruger National Park, which covers an area about the size of
Israel, where soldiers and surveillance aircraft have been
deployed in recent months to slow the carnage.
The park has been the focal point of an arms race as gangs
of poachers sponsored by international crime syndicates have
used high-powered weaponry, night vision goggles and helicopters
to hunt the animals, investigators said.
In a separate study, the number of large-scale ivory
seizures is likely set a record this year, pointing to increased
African elephant poaching.
South Africa, home to over 90% of the rhinos in
Africa, grants licences for legal hunts, with a growing number
of the horns then mounted as trophies, shipped to Asia and sold
on the black market, according to police and customs officials.
Many poachers were trained by Mozambique's military or
police and are now living in squalor in the border region next
to Kruger, South African investigators said.
Their cut of the rhino money is relatively small compared to
other players in the international trade but is considered a
fortune at home.
Rhino horn has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine,
where it is ground into a powder and often mixed with hot water
to treat a variety of maladies including rheumatism, gout, high
fever and even devil possession.
In recent years, it has also taken on a reputation for being
an aphrodisiac and cancer cure.
"Nothing is more tragic than to see this totally unnecessary
and brutal killing of an animal for its horn, and the horn in
turn has zero medicinal value," said Pelham Jones, a leader of
the South Africa Private Rhino Owners Association.