(Updates with commissioner’s comment in 12th paragraph.)
Aug. 12 (Bloomberg) -- South Africa’s Cabinet has approved the relocation of rhinos from the country’s Kruger National Park to secret sites both within the nation and across its borders to combat a surge in poaching.
Discussions with Botswana and Zambia have started, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa told reporters today in Pretoria, the capital.
The country, home to most of the world’s rhinos, is struggling to protect the pachyderms against poachers, many of whom stream across the border between Mozambique and Kruger armed with automatic rifles and night sights. So far this year 638 rhinos have been poached in South Africa, almost two thirds of those in Kruger, a reserve the size of Israel, compared with a record 1,004 in all of last year.
“South Africa also recognizes international opportunities for establishing rhino strongholds in neighboring countries,” Molewa said.
Poaching has surged in South African game reserves and private game ranches as demand for the animals’ horns climbs in Asian nations including China and Vietnam because of a false belief that they can cure diseases including cancer.
As many as 500 rhinos could be moved safely from Kruger, Sam Ferreira, a large-mammal ecologist at South African National Parks, said at the briefing. Moving so many of them would be logistically difficult, he said.
In addition to protecting the animals from poachers, relocations can boost populations as some are moved from areas where there are too many rhinos for the ecosystem to support and birth rates are declining, he said.
“The translocations are the backbone of what South Africans have achieved with rhinos” in conservation, Ferreira said. About 1,500 rhinos were relocated from Kruger from 1997 to 2013, a program that “has contributed significantly” to the growth of the South African population of the animals, Molewa said.
South Africa’s government has also taken other steps to protect rhinos, including deploying soldiers in Kruger.
New interventions include disrupting crime syndicates, Molewa said, with the number of poachers arrested “considerably” higher this year than in 2013.
Last month, a poacher was sentenced in a court northeast of Johannesburg to 77 years in jail for killing three rhino calves in 2011. Six people were arrested in an operation in the Kruger, South African National Parks, which runs the reserve, said in a statement yesterday.
Police have stepped up measures to fight poaching by setting up a team to deal with it, boosting crime-scene personnel and engaging with communities around the areas, South African Police Service Commissioner Riah Phiyega told reporters.
The police have made 176 arrests in connection with rhino poaching this year and have the ability to continue the pursuit of criminals across the border, according to Phiyega.
Together, the measures have stabilized the population, according to Molewa.
“The latest rhino-population survey, in 2013, conducted by SANParks, showed that between 8,400 and 9,600 white rhinos are presently living in Kruger National Park,” she said. “Poaching, natural deaths and the translocation of rhino from the Kruger National Park presently match that of rhino births.”
There is no final decision on legalizing trading of rhino horn after the government last year authorized her department to explore the possibility, Molewa said.
“The Cabinet has established an inter-ministerial committee and a panel of experts,” she said.
Most rhinos in South Africa are white rhinos, the bigger of the two types of the animal found in Africa. They can weigh more than 2 metric tons.
Their horns, and those of the smaller black rhino as well as Asian varieties, are more valuable than gold by weight. The horns are largely made up of keratin, a substance similar to human hair.