Durban - An expert on rhino poaching has described the scourge as a “new form of organised crime” that involves local and international syndicates, conservation officials and diplomats.
Professor Moses Montesh, from the College of Law at Unisa, said rhino poaching fatality figures for the year so far had already exceeded those for the whole of last year, pointing to the need for improved anti-poaching measures and more manpower.
Legalising the trade in rhino horn might also need to be considered, he said.
A total of 688 rhinos have been slaughtered for their horns in South Africa this year, in comparison with 688 for the whole of last year.
To date, 290 arrests have been made as opposed to 267 last year, said Montesh, who was addressing delegates at the 51st International Association of Women Police training conference in Durban.
“These statistics show the extent of the problem,” said Montesh who researched rhino poaching in Mozambique, Vietnam and in South Africa.
Poverty, greed and the existence of a market for rhino horns were fuelling rhino poaching in Mozambique, he said. Another problem was that “rhino poaching in Mozambique is not a criminal offence but a misdemeanor”.
Poachers from Mozambique travel into the Kruger National Park to kill rhinos for their horns. The park has the highest number of rhino fatalities, currently at 418. Limpopo has 80, the North West Province 69 and KwaZulu-Natal has recorded 65.
Montesh said 15 to 17 gangs were operating in the Kruger National Park. The poachers used AK-47s, bows and arrows, snares, box traps and poison.
During discussions after Montesh’s address, a Zimbabwean police commissioner said cyanide gas was used in Zimbabwe for rhino poaching, which was also killing people.
Montesh said there were links between rhino poaching and organised crime and that crime syndicates and conservation officials were involved.
Rhino horn consumers in Vietnam, he said, were terminally ill cancer patients; people who used it as a detoxifying beverage; affluent young mothers who used it to cure their children’s fevers; and the elite, who used the horns as a gift “for corruption purposes”.
Montesh said some of the myths about rhino horn was that it is a powerful aphrodisiac, a cancer-curing drug and that it cured hangovers.
He said people were so keen to buy rhino horns that they did not always check their authenticity.
Some poachers killed cows or water buffalo for their horns. Dogs were killed and a body placed in the same bag as the fake horn to give it the same stench as a rhino horn.
Montesh said one buyer had been duped into spending R30 000 on a fake horn.
He said Asian syndicates also poached lions for their bones and embassies’ diplomatic bags were used for smuggling horns.
The lack of resources to fight poaching, especially staff, was a major problem.
He said the Kruger National Park had 650 rangers to cover two million hectares.
“The park is the size of Sweden, which has 20 000 police officers, while there are only 1 000 police officers to cover the same area in the park.”
He said the estimated price of a single kilogram of rhino horn was US $65 000 (R655 000). One horn, he said, weighed 7kg. “Doing the maths in 2013, 688 rhinos were killed for their horns, which each weigh 7kg – which works out to approximately R3-billion in lost revenue for rhino horns.”
Montesh said legalising the commercial trade of rhino horns could be one way to tackle the problem.
He said rhinos should only be dehorned in very high risk situations, in which they were exposed to large human populations and where adequate security was not affordable.
He recommended improved perimeter security to combat poachers. This would include increasing the number of vehicle patrols. In addition, anti-poaching operations needed to be planned and carried out by experienced leaders, with solid research carried out.
A Vietnamese delegation visited Kruger National Park last week on a fact-finding mission and reportedly said the country would educate its citizens about rhino poaching and debunk the myth that the horns had medicinal benefits. - Daily News