South Africa Tackles Rhino Poaching
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
This week, South Africa launched a special wildlife crime unit, it's mission: to stop an alarming surge in rhinoceros poaching. Already this year, nearly twice as many rhinos have been poached as last year, and just this past month, authorities arrested nine people in a suspected poaching ring, including two veterinarians. Reporter Vicky O'Hara takes us now to a game reserve in Johannesburg that's on the front line of the problem.
VICKY O'HARA: South Africa has more than 90 percent of the world's white rhinos, more than 30 percent of the black rhinos, but their numbers decrease by the day. Poaching always has been a problem, but it has exploded in the last few years, driven by Asian beliefs that rhino horn has medicinal value.
Mr. FAAN COETZEE (Endangered Wildlife Trust): It's definitely getting worse.
O'HARA: Faan Coetzee heads the rhino project for the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa.
Mr. COETZEE: 2008, we lost 83 rhino; 2009, it went up to 122. At this moment, were standing at 198.
O'HARA: The Krugersdorp Game Reserve is a popular destination for tourists and residents of Johannesburg. It's only an hour from the city. The weather on the high plateau is lovely year-round, and people come to get away from Johannesburg, enjoy the waterfall, the pool, and give their kids a chance to see animals in the wild.
The reserve has giraffes, lions, cheetahs, zebras, wildebeest. Elna Brink owns the reserve. She says that until last year, the park also had five rhinos.
Ms. ELNA BRINK (Owner, Krugersdorp Game Reserve): Whatever we had has been poached: last year the big bull, and then earlier in the year two females then, about a month ago the last female with a baby.
O'HARA: Japie Mostert has managed the wildlife in the reserve for 20 years. He's a giant of a man, about 6'5", big shoulders, gray beard. He muscles his Landrover over the rolling grasslands where his children grew up, where his grandchildren come to play. It's spring here; the grass is still brown. But the thorn trees have leafed out. So the giraffes are happy.
Mr. JAPIE MOSTERT (Wildlife Manager, Krugersdorp Game Reserve): Sorry, Sorry. I just want to show you.
O'HARA: Mostert veers off the track and bounces along the hillside. He pauses at a small herd of Hardebeest, including two wobbly newborns, huddling by their mothers.
Mr. MOSTERT: What is more beautiful than that, born in the last 24 hours?
O'HARA: Mostert clearly loves wildlife. So the poaching of the rhinos has been hard for him. He found the first to be killed, and he drives to the place where he found the last, a cow.
Mr. MOSTERT: On the night of the 13th of July, I was watching the cow and the calf where they were drinking, (unintelligible). And then I left, and about 8 o'clock the next morning, I found the body here. And it was dehorned, and the cow died.
O'HARA: Mostert says the rhinos had distinct personalities. He could tell them apart.
MR. MOSTERT: I love the rhino. I worked with them for more than 20 years. What can I say? They're like my children.
O'HARA: The game manager says the whole operation, shooting the cow with tranquilizers from a helicopter, cutting off her horn with a chainsaw and taking off again could not have taken more than 10 minutes. The rhino bled to death. But her calf survived. It was taken to a nearby reserve, where it is being bottle-fed with two other orphans.
Reserve owner Elna Brink says when she heard what had happened, she did not go see the dead rhino nor the calf as it was taken away.
Ms. BRINK: I was so traumatized myself, I just stayed away. I didn't want to see it.
O'HARA: The poaching is not just hard for animal lovers; its a financial disaster for wildlife reserves, one of the best ways to protect the endangered rhino in a natural setting.
A white rhino used to sell for around $6,000 U.S. Elna Brink says the price is dropping.
Ms. BRINK: Nobody wants to buy them because they know they are going to be poached.
O'HARA: Rhino horn on Asian markets commands several hundred thousand dollars or more, depending on size. That means the rhino is worth more dead than alive.
Some reserves have begun removing the rhino horns themselves to protect their animals, but rhino conservationist Fann Coetzee says it doesn't do any good.
Mr. COETZEE: Its not really a solution because they still come for the stub that is left.
O'HARA: Some rhino have survived having their horns cut off by poachers. But the poachers returned later to remove more of the jaw, finally killing the animals.
The slaughter of rhinos is not confined to Krugersdorp. Its happening in reserves around the country, especially those near the border. South Africa has established special law enforcement units to crack down on poaching, and arrests have been made. But it's hard to stop organized crime.
A conservationist in Pretoria reports finding poisoned cabbages recently on a game reserve in a place where rhinos gather. Reinhardt Hotzhausen of Wildlife ranching South Africa says poachers also have poisoned water holes; theyve killed not just rhinos but lots of other wildlife. For NPR News, I'm Vicky O'Hara in Johannesburg.
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