HARARE, Zimbabwe — Poachers are using aircraft to hunt and kill rhinoceros, Zimbabwe's wildlife chief said Tuesday, as demand in Asia for their horns' supposed medicinal benefits grows.
Seven endangered rhinos were killed in southern Zimbabwe from early December to Jan. 19, representing about one-third of all 22 rhinos poached throughout 2010, Parks and Wildlife director general Vitalis Chidenga.
He said the poachers, including local recruits, were well-equipped with sophisticated weapons. Five of the rhino were shot in one park in the southwestern Matabeleland province, he said.
Rhino horn is prized in Asia as a traditional cure for everything from colds to impotence and it is used to fashion ceremonial dagger handles in oil-rich countries in the Middle East.
Chidenga said the southern African nation has about 1,000 surviving rhinoceros, and that extra rangers and soldiers are being sent into their habitats to protect them.
Evidence from sites of the recent killings in Zimbabwe showed poachers were "well-organized and well-funded." Some "big money" syndicates even used light aircraft for poaching missions and reconnaissance.
"This is a regional onslaught and not isolated incidents," Chidenga told The Associated Press.
Wildlife officials in neighboring South Africa say 2010 was an extraordinarily bad year, with 333 rhinos poached, nearly three times as many as were lost in 2009. Five more rhinos were killed in the first weeks of 2011.
South Africa has more rhinos – more than 21,000 – than any other country.
In South Africa, the trade is lucrative enough for poachers to be able to afford helicopters and night-vision goggles – equipment African wildlife officials often can't afford. Game park owners and veterinarians have been arrested for poaching in South Africa.
"Rhino poaching across Africa has risen sharply in the past few years, threatening to reverse hard-won population increases achieved by governments and conservation groups during the 20th century," the World Wildlife Fund warned recently.
Rhino horn is a key ingredient in Chinese traditional medicine, and demand for it continues despite China having signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It also banned the commercial trade in rhino horn in 1993. But a growing middle class with more disposable income and a taste for the pursuit of rare items has contributed to the demand, conservationists say.
Demand also appears to have increased in Vietnam, where some are willing to pay large sums for exotic animals used in traditional medicine. A small amount of ground rhino horn can fetch hundreds of dollars on the black market. It is used to treat fevers, high blood pressure and other ailments.
Last year, a Javan rhino, which is one of the world's rarest mammals, was found dead in a Vietnamese national park with its horn chopped off. Experts believe only three to five animals still exist in Vietnam.
In 2008, Vietnam recalled a diplomat from its embassy in South Africa after she was caught on tape receiving illegal rhino horns.
In Kenya, the number of rhinos killed by poachers more than tripled from 2008 to 2009, from six rhinos to 21, said Patrick Omondi, a Kenya Wildlife Service official.
Omondi said poachers killed 20 rhinos in 2010. He attributed the increase to high demand for rhino horn in southeast Asia and to a 2007 temporary lifting of an international ban on rhino hunting in some southern African countries. He said the temporary lift of the ban created a window for poachers to smuggle rhino horns out of the country.
Omondi said the wildlife service is has imposed 24-hour surveillance on Kenya's 600-plus rhinos in attempt to curb poaching.
Chidenga, the Zimbabwe wildlife chief, said world efforts to "demystify" the medicinal affects of rhino horn – consisting of keratin, the main component of human fingernails and hair – failed to yield results in Asia.
He said rhinoceros were not the only target of the organized crime syndicates.
In one incident last year, a helicopter was used to herd elephants into poachers' gunfire in southeastern Zimbabwe near the border with neighboring Mozambique. Ten animals were slain and their ivory tusks were removed "quickly, clinically and professionally," he said.
Associated Press writers Cara Anna in Beijing; Donna Bryson in Johannesburg; Margie Mason in Hanoi, Vietnam and Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.