“Conservationists” behind rhino poaching spree, newspaper reports

The majority of the leading South Africans behind the current wave of poaching and smuggling rhino horns were respected local figures with conservationist profiles, the Sunday Independent reported yesterday.

According to the South African newspaper’s De Wet Potgieter, detectives believe the individuals are part of an extensive syndicate behind as much as 70 percent of the current wave of rhino killings in the country. (Mutilated rhino corpses found in Kruger)

So far this year at least 115 rhinos have been poached, including four this month in the Kruger National Park. The total number of rhinos poached in South Africa last year was 120, Potgieter reported.

Since 2006 95 percent of the rhino poaching in Africa has occurred in Zimbabwe and South Africa, according to a report released seven months ago by by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. “These two nations collectively form the epicenter of an unrelenting poaching crisis in southern Africa,” said Tom Milliken of TRAFFIC, a joint program of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and WWF.

Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall reported from Johannesburg earlier this month that South Africa was battling to save rhinos from high-tech poachers intent on smuggling the animals’ horns to the Far East, where it was believed they could be sold as aphrodisiacs for as much as $U.S.1 million apiece.

The Sunday Independent’s report yesterday suggested that the South African police were closing in on the newest syndicate behind much of the illegal trade.

“Identified alleged associates include two well-known game veterinarians, who are suspected of providing dart guns and supplying controlled tranquilliser drugs for use on poaching expeditions,” Potgieter reported. Dart guns are used to incapacitate the animals before the horn is removed, since horn taken from a live rhino fetches a higher price on far Eastern markets. “Only after the horn has been cut off is the hapless animal finally dispatched,” Potgieter wrote.

Also noted in Potgieter’s report in the Sunday Independent were arrests of three Vietnamese nationals allegedly trying to smuggle rhino horns out of South Africa in two separate incidents this month. Between them they were allegedly carrying 25 rhino horns.

The South African authorities were planning to form a national wildlife crime reaction unit that would include specialists from the country’s organized crime unit and Interpol, Potgieter added.

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn