JOHANNESBURG — Park rangers in South Africa are cracking down, hard and with lethal force, on rhinoceros poaching. Nine alleged poachers have already been killed this year by rangers, twice as many as in all of 2010.
The sharp increase in the number of poacher deaths has gone hand-in-hand with an uptick in the number of killings by poachers of rhinos for their horns, which fetch top dollar in Asia where they're prized for their purported medicinal powers.
The rangers only fire on poachers in self-defense, insisted Bandile Mkhize, chief executive of KwaZulu-Natal parks and a former top manager at South Africa's premier Kruger park.
"The major problem is that the poachers are heavily armed," he said. "Do we allow them to shoot our rangers as well as our rhinos?"
Last year, 333 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa, nearly three times as many as in 2009. Park rangers have responded by stepping up training and patrols. South African army troops are even expected to join anti-poaching patrols in Kruger, which is the size of Israel and is in northeast part of the country near Mozambique, later this year.
Wildlife agents in Kenya undergo paramilitary training and hunt down suspected poachers using battlefield tactics. In December 2009, poachers shot and killed a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger. In response, wildlife agents set up an ambush of the suspects and killed two of them. Armed wildlife agents walk Kenya's national parks on foot to hunt for poachers.
Kenyan wildlife agents shot and killed five poachers in November, the highest ever in one month.
"The efforts from the rangers on the ground are a lot better, and more sharp," said conservationist Faan Coetzee of South Africa's private Endangered Wildlife Trust. "Inevitably you are going to pick up more poachers, and obviously the poachers are armed, and they normally shoot first."
The poachers often come from impoverished communities around game parks, said Joseph Okori, Africa rhino program manager for the World Wildlife Fund. Law enforcement must ensure that using deadly force against poachers does not become the norm, he said, adding that those killed by rangers would quickly be replaced in a country where a quarter of the work force is unemployed.
International syndicates which traffic in rhino horns and take large profits are also recruiting poachers from countries like Mozambique that have even weaker economies. Coetzee said it is difficult to estimate how much a poacher is paid, but believes that while it may seem like a small fortune to an unemployed immigrant, it is only a fraction of what the syndicates earn.
Shooting poachers, Okori said, will alienate those who could help conservationists identify recruiters and lead them to the masterminds of the illicit multinational, multimillion dollar rhino horn industry .
"The people being killed are just trying to survive," Okori said. "Focus should be paid to the demand side. It will really be good for people to know that what they are striving to have, this rhino horn, is leading to not just loss of rhino life, but loss of human life."
Since Jan. 1, eight suspects have been killed in the South African national parks and a ninth in a province-run park, said Wanda Mkutshulwa, spokeswoman for South Africa National Parks. Last year, four suspects were killed. No rangers have been killed in the confrontations, she said.
Wildlife officials in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province said a shoot-out earlier this month happened after rangers responding to a tip about a poaching attempt were taking up positions and heard shots. They spotted two suspects and identified themselves. One suspect fired on the rangers and they returned fire, killing the suspect, authorities said in a statement.
KwaZulu-Natal parks chief executive Mkhize said a police investigation determined the rangers fired in self-defense. Police did not respond to requests for comment.
Coetzee said he expected an escalation in violence. Poachers are desperate and determined and rangers are getting better training and equipment in the face of an explosion in poaching.
South Africa has more than 21,000 rhinos, more than any other country.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects by deleting that WWF is Washington-based.)