IN CROSSHAIRS: South Africa is home to more than 90% of the global rhino population. Scientists forecast if poaching rises as fast as is did between 2009 and 2011 the population will go into decline by 2016. Picture: THE TIMES
IN CROSSHAIRS: South Africa is home to more than 90% of the global rhino population. Scientists forecast if poaching rises as fast as is did between 2009 and 2011 the population will go into decline by 2016. Picture: THE TIMES

A RECENT spate of attacks on rhinos in the Kruger National Park, which has lost 145 rhinos to poachers this year, was not an indication of increased intensity in poaching, but rather part of fluctuations within the general escalation in poaching since 2008, South Africa National Parks (SANParks) spokeswoman Wanda Mkutshulwa said on Thursday.

South Africa is home to more than 90% of the world’s rhinos, which are under attack from poachers eager to make money from Asia’s demand for rhino horn. Experts fear the species could be extinct by the middle of the century.

"This is like full-scale war that’s raging in that park," Albi Modise, spokesman for Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa, told AFP, after 56 incursions were recorded by rangers in just 12 days in March.

Ms Mkutshulwa said the recent upswing was simply part of fluctuations within the general escalation in poaching since 2008. In 2009, 122 rhinos were killed by poachers across South Africa, and by 2011 this figure had risen to 448.

SANParks employed retired military man Gen Johan Jooste in January to oversee the park’s fight against rhino poaching. Ms Mkutshulwa said it was too early to make any pronouncement on Gen Jooste’s help.

"It would be unfair, after only three months," she said.

What was of concern, however, was the increased cross-border incursions from Mozambique. This was a concern that Ms Molewa raised last week in an interview with Business Day in which she said she was speaking to Mozambican government officials.

"They (Mozambique) need to stop letting horns out of Maputo airport. They also need to improve the penalties for possession of rhino horn. It’s often seen just as a misdemeanour," she said.

The Kruger National Park shares a long border with Mozambique. Ms Mkutshulwa said poachers were reacting to South African military pressure, and moving around in the park to places less, or thought to be less, patrolled.

The deaths last weekend of five soldiers in a patrol helicopter crash are still being investigated, but might not have anything directly to do with poachers, Ms Mkutshulwa said.

Rhino horn is sought after as a general "pick-me-up", a cancer cure and even an aphrodisiac, and fetches an estimated $60,000 per kilogram in the Far East.

South Africa is considering applying to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) for permission to trade in rhino horn in an attempt to stave off the rhino’s extinction. Rhino horn trade is banned by Cites, and has been banned for 30 years.