AFRICA’S biggest animals were poached in near-record numbers in 2012, with surging demand for horn and ivory from Asia driving the slaughter of rhinos and elephants.
Poachers had killed 633 rhinos in South Africa by mid-December, according to government figures. That marks a new annual peak in the country that is home to most of the continent’s rhinos, and a sharp rise from the record 448 poached last year and the mere handful of deaths recorded a decade ago.
Elsewhere in Africa, the slaughter of elephants continued unabated, with mass killings reported in Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to conservation group Traffic, which monitors global trade in animals and plants, the amount of ivory seized is likely to drop from 2011 levels, where a record number of big hauls was made globally.
However, the trend remains grim.
“It looks like 2012 is another bumper year for trade in illegal ivory, though it is unlikely to top 2011,” said Tom Milliken, who manages Traffic’s elephant trade information system.
In 2011, an estimated 40 tonnes of illegal ivory were seized worldwide, representing thousands of dead elephants. So far this year, about 28 tonnes has reportedly been seized but the number is expected to climb as more data comes in.
Demand for ivory as ornamental items is rising fast in Asia, in tandem with growing Chinese influence and investment in Africa, which has opened the door wider for illicit trade in elephants and other animals.
Rhino horn has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, where it was ground into powder to treat a range of maladies including rheumatism, gout and even possession by devils.
Ivory smuggling has also been linked to conflict, and last week the United Nations Security Council called for an investigation into the alleged involvement in the trade of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda.
Led by warlord Joseph Kony, who is being hunted by an African Union and US-backed military force, the LRA is accused of terrorising the country’s north for more than 20 years through the abduction of children to use as fighters and sex slaves.
“The illegal killings of large numbers of elephants for their ivory are increasingly involving organised crime and in some cases well armed rebel militias,” the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) said this week.
“In Bouba N’Djida National Park, in northern Cameroon, up to 450 elephants were allegedly killed by groups from Chad and the Sudan early this year,” said CITES, which is an international agreement body that oversees trade in wildlife.
In the case of rhino horn, demand has also been growing in Vietnam, where a newly-affluent class has been buying it to treat ailments ranging from hang-overs to cancer.
The claims have no basis in science but demand has pushed the price of the horn up to $65,000 a kilogramme on the streets of Hanoi, making it more expensive than gold.
Most of the rhino killings take place in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
Gangs armed with firearms and night-vision goggles enter from neighbouring Mozambique, from where, observers say, the horn is often smuggled out through the same routes used to bring illegal drugs from south-east Asia into Africa.