South Africa Makes A Plan To Protect Rhinos From Poachers

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NPR's Linda Wertheimer speaks to Jo Shaw, rhino program manager at the World Wildlife Fund in Cape Town, South Africa, about the country's new rhino conservation plan.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

These days, South Africa is a dangerous place to be if you're a rhinoceros. A majority of the world's rhinos live there, but they are increasingly threatened by poachers who kill the animals for their valuable horns. South Africa's Ministry of Environmental Affairs recently unveiled a new plan for management of the rhino population.

We called Jo Shaw in Cape Town. She's the rhino program manager for the World Wildlife Fund South Africa. Welcome to our program.

JO SHAW: Thank you very much.

WERTHEIMER: Can you give us a sense of the scale of this problem?

SHAW: Sadly, the challenge continues to grow. The statistics of the number of rhinos killed in South Africa alone last year were over 1,000 - 1,004 animals. This has been an almost exponential increase since about 2008.

WERTHEIMER: Now the rhinos are killed for their horns. Who wants rhino horn?

SHAW: Rhino horn has been used in small quantities as part of traditional Asian medicine for centuries. What we're seeing now is it's become a status symbol in the newly rich Asian states.

WERTHEIMER: So tell us about this new plan in South Africa. What are you doing that you think is going to help?

SHAW: This week the minister for Environmental Affairs discussed a new plan to boost rhino numbers based around supporting existing law enforcement initiatives but also working on disrupting the international crime networks involved in trafficking rhino horn. As well as the idea of moving rhinos from areas where they are at thread to new areas where population can start to grow again.

WERTHEIMER: How though? How do you do that? I mean, you can't herd rhinos. They're enormous. How do you move them?

SHAW: The rhino has to be tranquilized, obviously, before you can intervene and move it anywhere. So that involves a helicopter with a vet and a dart gun who dart the animal so that it becomes tranquilized. It can then be loaded into a metal box or crate which is put onto a truck and can be driven to the new release site.

One technique that's also been developed is to actually attach the rhino underneath a helicopter and use that to lift them from very inaccessible areas to new sites. To see the conservation agencies in action undertaking these operations is quite remarkable. It's an incredibly slick and sophisticated team, the way that they pull off these huge logistical challenges.

WERTHEIMER: Jo Shaw, she's the rhino program manager at the World Wildlife Fund South Africa. Thanks very much.

SHAW: Thank you.

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