Rhinos at risk get US crime-fighting boost

2011-12-01 08:45

Washington - A US-based animal protection group said on Wednesday it is collecting money for a new initiative to equip rangers in South Africa and Zimbabwe with crime-scene kits to better track rhinoceros poachers.

The programme was announced just weeks after rhino poaching in South Africa hit a record high for the year, and follows more troubling news that several species of rhino have been poached into extinction or close to it.

The rare, lumbering creatures are increasingly targeted to supply organized crime syndicates selling rhino horn for use in Asian medicinal treatments, especially in Vietnam, where it is believed to cure cancer.

The initiative aims to cut back on rhino deaths by boosting the investigative prowess of those who try to stop the sophisticated poachers, who often use helicopters, night vision equipment and high-powered rifles.

Fewer than five percent of poachers are ever convicted, according to the International Rhino Foundation, which is launching the new program called "Operation Stop Poaching Now."

The effort targets 11 "highly threatened rhino habitats in South Africa and Zimbabwe," the foundation said.

Funds donated to the campaign "will go toward providing rangers with training in investigative techniques, intelligence gathering, evidence collection, communications, and rhino identification and monitoring," it said.

Some $55 000 have already been raised, and the foundation is aiming to collect $25 000 more in donations over the next four weeks in the hopes of training up to 300 rangers.

Rangers will get crime-scene kits that contain a camera, a metal detector, a GPS system, finger-printing materials and sealable evidence bags. Most of them currently do not have any of this equipment, a spokesperson told AFP.

"It's an unbelievably difficult and dangerous job," said Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation.

"But there are thousands of dedicated, passionate rangers in South Africa, Zimbabwe and other range countries trying to stand in between the rhinos and the poachers."

The World Wildlife Fund has said that rhino poaching in South Africa hit a new record high last year, with 341 of the animals, which often reach one ton or more in weight, lost to poachers.

WWF also confirmed that rhinos have gone extinct in Vietnam, with the country's last Javan rhino found shot with its horn removed.

Separately, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which compiles the Red List of Threatened Species, said earlier this month that a subspecies of black rhino native to western Africa is now extinct.

Central Africa's northern white rhino was also listed as "possibly extinct in the wild."

Booming demand has driven the price to half a million dollars per horn, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The low conviction rate for poachers means "they are literally getting away with murder," Ellis said.

A partner of the International Rhino Foundation, the Lowveld Rhino Trust, has already done some of the crime-scene training for law enforcement officials in Zimbabwe.

Six months after the training, nine poachers have been convicted and sentenced to 10-20 years each, a spokesperson said.


Read more on:    wwf  |  animals  |  poaching

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