Poachers kill rare black rhino in Tanzania: minister

DAR ES SALAAM Thu Dec 16, 2010 10:56am EST

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DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Poachers have killed one of five critically endangered east African black rhinos that were relocated to their natural habitat in Tanzania's Serengeti park from South Africa in May.

The rhino was killed just seven months after its arrival in the Serengeti, despite being implanted with an electronic chip and protected by an elite ranger task force specially trained to guard the animals.

Rampant poaching in the Serengeti -- famed for its sweeping planes and Africa's most spectacular wildebeest migration -- in the 1960s and 70s saw the population of black rhinos in Tanzania plummet from over 1,000 to just 70, denting tourist arrivals.

"We received information on Sunday that one of the five rhinos that arrived from South Africa was missing after a special tracking gadget fitted on the animal went inactive," Ezekiel Maige, Tanzania's Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism told Reuters in a telephone interview on Thursday.

"The rhino's carcass was found in the Serengeti National Park on Tuesday, with the horn cut off. This was clearly the work of a group of poachers."

Rhinos are heavily poached for their horns, which are highly sought-after in parts of the Middle and Far East. It is believed in some cultures that powdered rhino horn has powerful medicinal properties, although this has never been proven.

The five rhinos flown to Tanzania are part of a larger group of 32 animals being reintroduced to Tanzania from a 50-strong herd. The rhinos were bred from seven animals that were relocated to South Africa in the early 1960s.

The remaining 27 rhinos are expected to be returned to their native country in stages over the next two years under the Serengeti Rhino Repatriation project.

The rhinos were flown from South Africa to Tanzania in a chartered Hercules C-130 cargo plane.

Conservation experts had hoped extra protection for the rhinos would also help other species in the park.

Organizers said the relocation was part of a new drive by African governments to protect the "big five" mammals -- lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards and buffalo -- that make up one of the continent's main tourist attractions.

"We have commissioned a serious manhunt to trace the whereabouts of the poachers behind this incident. We are using every means at our disposal," said Maige.

"We are also in talks with the Frankfurt Zoological Society to ensure closer monitoring and surveillance of the animals and the build-up of the necessary resources."

Both Tanzania and Kenya have suffered a spike in poaching, particularly of elephants and rhino, in the past few years. Kenya lost at least six rhinos last year, conservationists say.

(Editing by James Macharia and Elizabeth Fullerton)

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