S.Africa fights surging rhino killings in remote Kruger

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa, April 5 Thu Apr 5, 2012 7:39am EDT

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa, April 5 (Reuters) - A lmost two rhinos are being killed every day in South Africa to meet surging Asian demand for the animal's horn which has become more valuable than gold, platinum and cocaine.

Investigators in a remote corner of South Africa's Kruger National Park examined one of the latest victims of this crime wave on Tuesday, a white rhino felled by a heavy calibre .375 rifle shot.

Killed only days before, the corpse had been stripped almost bare by vultures and other scavengers, its ribs exposed and rotting under the hot African sky.

The street value of rhino horn has soared to $65,000 a kilogram as a belief takes hold among some in Southeast Asia that taking it can prevent, and even cure, cancer.

National Parks data shows that as of Wednesday, 159 rhinos had been killed in South Africa in 2012. At this rate, more than 600 will be lost to poachers this year compared with 448 in 2011.

"Our poachers come in from Mozambique," said Ken Maggs, head of the National Parks environmental crime investigation unit, as his team swept the nearby bush with metal detectors.

Magg's team find a shell casing 30 metres (100 feet) from the corpse. They take a DNA sample from the dead animal which can be used as evidence if the animal's horn is found by police.

Journalists who were flown into the crime scene by helicopter, somewhere close to the Mozambique border, were asked not to give its precise location such is the fear that the rhinos' tramping grounds become widely known.

South Africa is the epicentre of rhino poaching in Africa since virtually the total population of white rhino are found here and about 40 percent of the continent's much rarer black rhino. Ninety arrests related to rhino poaching have been made in South Africa so far this year.

While the trend is worrying, the animals are not immediately threatened with extinction, contrary to the claims of some wildlife groups. South Africa is home to about 90 percent of Africa's 18,000 white rhinos and despite their size, the animals reproduce at a robust rate.

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.

"OWNING THE NIGHT"

Killings are expected to spike in the coming days as the moon enters its full phase, making it easier for nocturnal poachers to navigate the African bush and see their quarry.

"He who owns the night wins," said Maggs.

It is no easy task to keep tabs on poachers. The Kruger National Park is the size of Israel and its eastern border with Mozambique is porous. The fence is no longer electrified because of the risk to innocent people and is punctured with holes.

It is also extremely remote as a low-level helicopter fly-over showed: few roads, endless bush.

Legal trophy hunting is allowed in South Africa, usually on privately owned safari ranches. Environment Minister Edna Molewa said on Wednesday new regulations would be brought in to ensure horns procured this way did not wind up on the black market.

Hunters will only be allowed to kill one rhino a year and hunts will be supervised by government conservation officials while proof of previous hunting experience will also be required. All detached horns will also be required to have a micro-chip inserted to enable authorities to track them.

The environment ministry says it has received 43 applications for rhino hunts so far this year, 23 from Vietnam, wh ose nationals are heavily involved in the trade.

All those from Vietnamese have been rejected and South Africa says none will be accepted from that country until it is satisfied Vietnam can ensure trophy horns are not traded. (Additional reporting by Siyabonga Sishi and Jon Herskovitz,; Editing by Ed Cropley and Ben Harding)