File photo for illustration purposes. Picture: Timothy Bernard

Amid shocking predi-ctions that SA’s rhinos are headed for extinction within a matter of decades – unless the runaway poaching rate is arrested – bogus hunters from Vietnam, China and Thailand are still slaughtering the country’s dwindling rhino population using perfectly legal loopholes in local hunting laws.

An official list of hunters who killed rhinos in North-West province over the past three years shows that the vast majority are from countries in the Far East most deeply implicated in the illegal trade in rhino horns by organised crime syndicates.

In North West province alone, more than 90 percent of the more than 180 legally sanctioned hunts over the past three years appear to have been awarded to Eastern nationals.

While far fewer rhinos were hunted in KwaZulu-Natal, almost 50 percent of the rhinos legally shot in this province in 2009 were killed by Vietnamese nationals.

And while local conservation officials have been alert to the abuse of hunting permits in several provinces for almost a decade, Environment Minister Edna Molewa rejected calls earlier this month for a national moratorium on rhino hunting in SA.

Largely owing to its formerly proud record in protecting and rescuing the white rhino from extinction, SA is one of the few countries in the world where this increasingly threatened species can still be hunted legally.

But the recent combination of unprecedented poaching levels and abuse of the hunting permit system to feed the illegal trade by criminal syndicates has cast a cloud over the country’s reputation as one of the world’s leading custodians of the species.

The crisis will come under further scrutiny in Cape Town on Thursday morning at a special sitting of the Parliamentary portfolio on environmental affairs.

The country’s oldest wildlife conservation body, one of several groups making verbal or written presentations, will suggest that SA’s rhino could be extinct within eight to 10 years unless the country acts swiftly to curb poaching immediately.

Chris Galliers of the Wildlife and Environment Society warned in his statement that 2011 would go down in history as one of the darkest for rhino conservation and he questioned whether the government’s response would have been the same if the country’s gold reserves were “plundered” on a similar scale.

Wildlife trade monitoring groups suggest that black-market rhino horn is selling for as much as $30 000 (R241 000) a kilogram in some Eastern nations, where it is marketed variously as a remedy for fever, an aphrodisiac, a cure for cancer or as a hangover and “after-party” cleansing agent.

African Rhino Specialist Group scientist Richard Emslie, who is also making a presentation to MPs on Thursday, disputed Galliers’s assertion that the SA rhino population could decline so quickly, but warned that the estimated population of 20 000 white and black rhino would be in trouble soon unless poaching was brought under control immediately.

Despite the unprecedented spike in poaching, he said the rhino population was still growing, but could start declining in overall terms within four to five years and then decline quite rapidly thereafter if the situation was not arrested.

Over the past four years alone, close to 1 000 rhinos (roughly 5 percent of the total South African population) have been poached illegally. The national department of Environment Affairs could not confirm on Wednesday how many rhinos had been hunted legally in the same period.

However, it is the rapid rate of increase in poaching which has raised alarm bells.

From an average annual poaching rate of 10 to 20 animals a year a decade ago, poaching soared dramatically when 80 animals were killed in 2008, rising to 122 in 2009, 333 in 2010 and 448 last year.

Spokesmen for the national Department of Environmental Affairs, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the Professional Hunters Association of SA were invited to comment or answer questions but had not responded by late on Wednesday. - The Mercury

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