Officials at South Africa’s National Parks say they are “under siege” from rhino poachers and if the killings go on at the current rate the animal will be extinct within decades.
Despite a range of tactics like deploying the army, mounting helicopter patrols and even using drones in the past few months to try to pinpoint the poachers, the killing of rhinos for their horns is continuing at an alarming rate.
More than 200 rhinos were killed in South Africa in the first three months of this year.
The total for 2013 therefore looks set to top last year’s figure, which was a record with more than 600 rhinos being slaughtered. And the 2012 figure was a dramatic increase on the previous year’s record of 448.
The worst hit by far is the country’s flagship Kruger National Park which shares a long 221-mile (356km) border with Mozambique, from where the vast majority of the poachers come.
Kruger saw more than 70 incursions last month by heavily-armed teams of poachers crossing from Mozambique.
Typically the teams are made up of between two and five hunters who find it very easy to slip across the border illegally.
They arrive carrying multiple weapons according to SANParks (South African National Parks) officials and can spend up to a week in the park, which is more than two million hectares – roughly the same size as Israel.
Ken Maggs, Chief of Staff of Operation Rhino at Kruger told Sky News: “This is a war we are fighting – against an enemy which has no rules.”
He was talking whilst overseeing a training exercise which involved teams of armed rangers in camouflage gear using sniffer dogs to track down the poachers.
“We have very specific rules of engagement and we do not operate a shoot-to-kill policy. We are not allowed to just shoot at a poacher. We have to physically grab him and bring him in for arrest,” he said.
The poachers are becoming more sophisticated and audacious – using silencers on their weapons to try to avoid detection and recruiting help from within the park to establish where the rhinos are.
The increase in rhino poaching has been driven by demand from the Far East for rhino horn which is believed to have healing and other properties – and is now more expensive than gold on the black market.
“We want to get the message across that rhino horn is just keratin, like our finger nails,” Ranger Andrew Desmet said.
“It has no such qualities at all.”
We trekked more than two hours into the bush with one of the Kruger’s investigation teams who had been alerted to more dead rhinos. The animals had lain undiscovered in the park for four days. (READ MORE) (AND CHECK OUT THE VIDEO)