Killing Fields: Africa's Rhinos Under Threat

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

Investigators dig for bullets inside a poached rhino as the manager of a South African game reserve covers his face in disgust

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And it is a real fight. Today's illicit rhino-horn trade isn't just small-time poachers picking off a stray beast or two. Instead, law-enforcement officials say, global criminal syndicates are orchestrating the lucrative business. By weight, rhino horn can be worth more than gold, fetching tens of thousands of dollars a kilogram in China or Vietnam, by far the two biggest markets for the illegal material, according to environmental watchdog groups. And because individual horns are compact, they can be transported easily.

The value of rhino horn explains why poachers often use expensive equipment like light aircraft, helicopters, tranquilizer guns and night-vision goggles to pursue their quarry — overwhelming conservation efforts by underfunded national wildlife commissions. African game ranchers, safari guides and wildlife officials — precisely those who should be protecting the beasts — have been caught dabbling in the trade. At the same time, Asian criminals posing as big-game hunters are spending tens of thousands of dollars on licenses that allow them to legally shoot rhinos in South Africa, adding a respectable veneer to a nasty pursuit. A continent away, Chinese business interests are investing lavishly in a shadowy rhino-farming scheme that threatens to contravene international law. Taken together, these elements amount to "the most sophisticated organized crime that the convention has had to face in its history," says John Sellar, head of the enforcement office for the CITES secretariat.

Sellar believes that wildlife crime is linked to a host of other criminal-syndicate pursuits. When Interpol organized a two-day operation to nab ivory and rhino-horn smugglers across six countries in southern Africa last year, only a handful of rhinoceros horns were recovered. But the effort resulted in 41 arrests and netted illegal immigrants, illicitly procured gold, banned firearms and even an unlicensed ivory-processing factory. "It can be very difficult to prove a conspiracy that reaches from Vietnam to South Africa and in between," says Sellar. "But some of the money that was being paid to exploit the legal hunting in South Africa, there's no way that the individuals were getting their return on that, which indicates that this is simply organized crime laundering their money."

True breakthroughs in the fight against rhino-horn smuggling won't happen unless police in countries like China and Vietnam, plus transit countries like Thailand and Malaysia, cooperate fully by following the illegal trail to the big criminal bosses. "We have significant resources, but we're directing them toward the easier options, like poachers and people connected with seizures," says Justin Gosling, Interpol's environmental-crime liaison officer for Asia and the South Pacific, at an environmental-crime convention in Lyon, France. "If we could just target and prosecute a handful of significant individuals, we could make a massive dent in these crimes."

For now, the poachers and their overlords have the upper hand. In 2001 police recovered two-thirds of poached rhino horns, according to data gathered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an environmental NGO. By 2009 the number was less than 8%. True, about a dozen poachers have been killed in shoot-outs in South Africa and one in Nepal this year, and more than 80 arrests have been made in connection with the illegal rhino trade. In 2010, prison sentences were meted out in Zimbabwe, South Africa, China and the U.S. But complicit officials are common, say law-enforcement experts. A member of one of Zimbabwe's crack commando units was in charge of one poaching gang, helping policemen smuggle horns and tusks out of national parks, says Sellar. Those who are genuinely trying to stop the trade are outmanned and outgunned. Many wildlife law-enforcement agencies don't even have arrest powers. "We are out there, guns blazing," says David Mbunda, head of South African National Parks. "It may not be tomorrow, but eventually we want to bring this scourge to a complete stop." In the meantime, the rhinoceros killings continue. In the first quarter of this year, 138 South African rhinos were poached, putting 2011 on pace to far exceed last year in kills. Rhino horn remains easily available in Asia, whether from online vendors or traditional-medicine shops. "This is not a crisis just for South Africa," says Lieut. Colonel Lineo Grace Motsepe, the commander of the endangered-species desk of the South African police service. "It's a crisis for the whole world."

A Rumored Cure for Cancer
The traditional-medicine store on Hanoi's Lan Ong Street smells ancient and enigmatic, its glass jars and wooden drawers filled with sea horses, deer antlers and a forest's worth of shriveled fungi. The friendly pharmacist listens to a story about a grandfather with cancer and nods. "We can get it for you," she says, dispatching her husband down the street. A few minutes later, he returns and unwraps a paper-covered package. A chunk of rhino horn tumbles out, its amber striations gleaming in the afternoon light. More than 6,200 miles (10,000 km) from southern Africa, the horn still smells of savanna. The price: $3,500 for 100 grams.

Vietnam has become a key market for rhino horn. A few years ago, intriguing rumors began circulating that someone very high up in the country's communist leadership was believed to have been cured of cancer by taking rhino-horn powder. Cancer had not been linked to rhino horn in Asian traditional-medicine tomes. The rumor of a cancer cure, however, tantalized the Vietnamese, particularly those who have accumulated wealth from the country's economic reforms.

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