By Adam Welz
The killing of rhinoceroses has escalated dramatically, especially in South Africa, which is home to 75 percent of the world’s rhino population. The slaughter is being orchestrated by brazen, highly organized gangs that smuggle the rhinos' horns to black markets in China and Southeast Asia.
On November 5, Chumlong Lemtongthai, a 43-year-old Thai national, put his tightly scrawled signature to a guilty plea that was submitted to a South African court. As Accused Number 1 in case 143/2011, he admitted to arranging the illegal hunting of 26 rhinoceroses and the export of their horns to a company in Laos. The plea ends on an unassuming note: “I humbly apologize to the court and the people of South Africa for my role in this matter. I appreciate that the emotions of all animal lovers in South Africa are running very high and that I was part of the problem.”
“The problem” required no further explanation for the judge, nor would it for most of his countrymen. Asian buyers, many in China and Vietnam, now pay upward of $50,000 per kilogram for rhino horn, to which they ascribe various powerful healing properties. An international ban on the trade of rhino horn has created skyrocketing demand on the black market, leading criminal poaching and smuggling gangs to descend on South Africa — home to most of the world’s rhino — with horrific results.
In 2007 only 13 rhino were poached in the country, about the average annual number since 1990. In 2008, the number rose sharply to 83, in 2009, to 123, and so on. This year — which isn’t over yet — 585 rhino have been illegally killed in South Africa.
Local news bulletins regularly report macabre discoveries of rhino carcasses with bloody holes carved into their snouts, deadly firefights between game rangers and heavily armed poachers deep in the bush, or the arrest of Asian “tourists” caught leaving the region with suitcases full of horn. Angry citizens have formed pressure groups to lobby government, raise money for rhino protection, and demonstrate noisily outside courthouses where suspected rhino criminals are on trial. More....