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Concern as rhino poaching rises

Poachers are using aircraft to hunt and kill rhinoceros, Zimbabwe's wildlife chief said, as demand in Asia for their horns' supposed medicinal benefits grows.

Seven endangered rhinos were killed in southern Zimbabwe from early December to January 19, representing about one-third of all 22 rhinos poached throughout 2010, Parks and Wildlife director general Vitalis Chidenga said.

He said the poachers, including local recruits, were well-equipped with sophisticated weapons. Five of the rhino were shot in one park in the south-western 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.

Mr 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-organised 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," Mr Chidenga said.

Wildlife officials in neighbouring South Africa said 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 not 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.

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