Rhino Poachers Go High-Tech, Rhino Kills Increase 2000%

Up until abut three years ago, wildlife officials in South Africa’s National Parks, rarely saw rhino poaching, with maybe ten kills per year. But that began to change in 2008. In just the past nine months of 2010 alone, officials have seen some 200 rhino kills.

The animals are poached primarily for their horns, which are prized commercially for their putative aphrodisiac and medicinal properties. The increase is believed to be mostly due to poachers adopting high-tech means to locate and hunt their illegal quarry.

Fed by demand from growing markets in Asia, poaching of rhino horns in Africa has dramatically increased in the last three years, according to a recent article, as well-organized groups have started using high-tech equipment–including helicopters–to track and kill the endangered animals.

Writing in an article for LiveScience, Charles Q. Choi describes the specific means effecting this dramatic increase in poached rhinos. With an arsenal comprised of helicopters, night-vision scopes, tranquilizer darts, and silenced weapons, poachers have become emboldened — fed by a growing market for rhino horn in Asia. The poached horns are ground into a powder which can fetch as much as $30, 000.00 per pound (60 K per kilogram).

These kills are not being committed by small bands of rogue poachers, rather,  according to the article, they are being done by well-organized, international groups.

Although most of the kills have been off-preserve, these kills can have long-term impact on the survival of the species. Maintaining robust numbers in the wild helps insure enough genetic variety to maintain the genetic fitness of the species in the long run.Their are only five species of rhinoceros in the world. Two are found in Africa, and three in Southern Asia. The African species are the black rhino (Diceros bicornis) and the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum; the “white” is actually a misnomer, the word comes from the Dutch word for “wide”). The black rhino (shown at the top of this post) is the rarest, with only4000 in total remaining, making in a ‘critically endangered’ species according to the IUCN’s rating system. The white rhinos are classified as ‘threatened’, with 17, 500 remaining. Eighty percent of Africa’s rhinos are found in South Africa.

Rhino horns are composed primarily of a protein known as keratin, which is the same protein that constitutes fingernails and hair.

Though prized in Chinese folk medicine as a febrifuge (a fever cure) its usefulness as a remedy may be due to it phosphorus content. As for its “aphrodisiac” properties, there is no evidence to support this (and “rhino horn” powder is commonly doped with other ingredients). It is believed that, in a bit of magical thinking, the slight resemblance of the horn to a penis (“look alike is alike”) bestows onto it some sexual potency magic. In many ancient groups and practices, the ingesting of organs or tissue belonging to an animal or human gave one its attributes.

Rhino are one of the last, true, land-based megafauna (along with elephants giraffes, hippopotamuses, some others) to have survived since the end of the last Ice Age. All species of rhinoceros are able to reach a weight of one ton or more. Rhinos are herbivores. They posses a thick skin (up to 1.5 cm thick) composed of collagen which is formed into a lattice-type structure. They have relatively small brains, for their size (up to 600 g), and poor eye sight, but possess excellent senses of smelling and hearing. African and Sumatran rhinos have two horns, all others have only one.

Ancient, long-extinct species of rhinoceros include Indricotherium (a giraffe-sized rhino) and Coelodonta (the Woolly Rhinoceros).

The original LS article can be read here.

To learn more about rhinos and other critically endangered species, visit the World Wildlife Fund website.

Photo: Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) in Tanzania. Ikiwaner On wikipedia.org, under a GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Diagram: Size comparison of extant rhinoceros species; GFDL, wikipedia.orgCC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported
Bottom photo: Coelodonta, the extinct woolly rhinoceros; Charles R. Knight, H. Osborn, ‘Men of the Old Stone Age’, public domain

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