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Relocating Rhinos to Protect them from Poaching

Dec 02, 2014 03:40 PM EST

Rhinos are prized by poachers for their long, pointy horns, but one group of veterinarians is working to rescue these African icons by relocating them to a safe zone, reports indicate.

Kruger National Park reached a peak of 12,200 rhinos in 2010 thanks to efforts from the Wildlife Veterinary Team in South Africa. Peter Buss along with others of his team hover in a helicopter above the Mozambique border, an area that's highly impoverished and therefore prone to poachers. By targeting rhinos with tranquilizers and then safely transporting them to a recently established "intensive protection zone" deeper within the park, they hope to save hundreds of animals from becoming victims of the cruel rhino horn trade.

"This is exactly what we've been doing for the last 30 years," Markus Hofmeyr, head of veterinary services at Kruger, told CNN. "Rhinos have recovered before."

With more than 730 rhinos killed as of September, it puts 2014 on track as the worst poaching year on record. What's more, one of the last northern white rhinos on the planet recently died, leaving just six members of the species left, all in captivity.

"Consequently the species now stands at the brink of complete extinction, a sorry testament to the greed of the human race," the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, which holds these rhinos, said in a statement.

Rhino poaching has increased dramatically in the last few years, with hundreds killed annually for their prized horns. Although there is no scientific proof of its medicinal value, rhino horn is used in traditional medicine, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). It is sawed off of a dead rhino and eventually ground into a fine powder or manufactured into tablets, as a means to treat a variety of illnesses such as nosebleeds, strokes and fevers.

Though they are merely made of keratin - the same protein found in human fingernails - rhino horns are worth as much as $5,550 an ounce on the black market, CNN reports. That's more than the price of gold, platinum, and even cocaine.

"The African rhino is under serious threat from poachers who have intensified their search of rhino for their horns since 2007, driven by growing market demands in Asia," said Dr. Joseph Okori, head of WWF's African Rhino Programme.

Several rhino subspecies are listed as "critically endangered" on the IUCN Red List - including black rhinos and Asia's Sumatran and Javan rhinos - and if the slaughter continues at its current rate, this iconic animal once numbering in the hundreds of thousands will become extinct.

"By 2019 we will only see or hear rhinos on Google or in the library," Cope MP Deidre Carter said during a debate on rhino poaching in September, according to Independent Online.

But the work that the Wildlife Veterinary Team and others are doing can hopefully combat this tragic trade. Kruger National Park is currently home to 10,000 rhinos - a quarter of the world's population - but there was a time when it had none. Relocation efforts, including one from 1960 to 1972 that introduced 300 rhinos, helped its population grow.

Still, they have their work cut out for them. The park shares a 350-kilometer border with Mozambique, which continues to be a poaching hot-spot. Last month alone some 600 poachers from the area infiltrated the park.

"We were rangers, now we're at war," the park's head of anti-poaching, Major General Johan Jooste, told CNN.

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