South Africa's Cabinet has approved the relocation of rhinos from the country's Kruger National Park to secret sites both within in the country and across its borders to combat a surge in poaching.
Discussions with Botswana and Zambia have started, Edna Molewa, the country's Minister of Environmental Affairs, said.
South Africa, home to most of the world's rhinos, is struggling to protect the pachyderms against poachers, many of whom stream across the border between Mozambique and Kruger armed with automatic rifles and night sights. So far this year 638 rhinos have been poached in South Africa, almost two thirds of those in Kruger, compared with a record 1,004 in all of last year.
"South Africa also recognises international opportunities for establishing rhino strongholds in neighbouring countries," Molewa said.
Poaching has surged in South African game reserves and private game ranches and beyond as demand for the animals' horns climbs in Asian nations including China and Vietnam because of a false belief that it can cure diseases including cancer.
As many as 500 rhinos could be safely moved from Kruger, a reserve the size of Israel, Sam Ferreira, a large mammal ecologist at South African National Parks, said at the briefing. Moving such a large number would be logistically difficult, he said.
In addition to protecting the animals from poachers relocations can boost populations as some are moved from areas where there are too many rhinos for the ecosystem to support and birth rates are declining, he said.
"The translocations are the backbone of what South Africans have achieved with rhinos" in conservation, Ferreira said. About 1,500 rhinos were relocated from Kruger between 1997 and 2013, a programme that "has contributed significantly" to the growth of the South African population of the animals, Molewa said.
South Africa's government has also taken other steps to protect rhinos including deploying soldiers in Kruger.
New interventions include disrupting crime syndicates, Molewa said, with the number of poachers arrested "considerably" higher this year than in 2013.
Last month, a poacher was sentenced in a court northeast of Johannesburg to 77 years in jail for killing three rhino calves in 2011. Six people were arrested in an operation in the Kruger, South African National Parks, which runs the reserve, said in a statement yesterday.
Police have stepped up measures to fight poaching including boosting crime scene personnel and engaging with communities around the areas, Riah Phiyega, South African Police Service commissioner, told reporters at the briefing.
The police have made 176 arrests in connection with rhino poaching this year and have the ability to continue the pursuit of criminals across the border, according to Phiyega.
Together the measures have stabilised the population, according to Molewa.
"The latest rhino population survey, in 2013, conducted by SANParks, showed that between 8,400 and 9,600 white rhinos are presently living in Kruger National Park," she said.
"Poaching, natural deaths and the translocation of rhino from the Kruger National Park presently match that of rhino births," Molewa said.
There is no final decision on legalising trading of rhino horn after the government last year authorised her department to explore the possibility, Molewa said.
"The Cabinet has established an inter-ministerial committee and a panel of experts," she said.
Most rhinos in South Africa are white rhinos, the bigger of the two types of the animal found in Africa. White rhinos can weigh more than two metric tons.
Their horns, and those of the smaller black rhino as well as Asian varieties, are more valuable than gold by weight. The horns are largely made up of keratin, a substance similar to human hair.
- The Washington Post