Rhino horn is made of keratin, a tough protein found in human fingernails. Doctors have repeatedly said the material has no medical value. In Asia, however, demand for rhino horn has jumped dramatically. Experts blame it partly on a widespread rumor in Vietnam that rhino horn cures cancer, though some elite Vietnamese grind up horn and take it as a hangover cure or as a fever reducer.
The ever-increasing demand saw Vietnamese poachers kill the last of Vietnam's rare Javan rhinoceros last year for its horn. The World Wildlife Fund ranked Vietnam as the worst country for wildlife crime in Asia and Africa in July. The country is seen as having lax laws on importing horns. Diplomats at the Vietnamese Embassy in South Africa's capital Pretoria have also been linked to trafficking. Earlier this month, a South African court sentenced a Thai national to 40 years in prison for selling rhino horns.
With high-level officials involved and a strong demand, Rademeyer said poaching "will probably get a lot worse before it gets any better."
Rhino poachers have gone beyond Kruger and are targeting private farms and reserves. Poachers likely watched the Finfoot Game Reserve, which breeds rhino for game viewing, for days, Lappeman said. Workers caught a man in ragged clothes lurking around the park with more than 1,000 rand ($115) in crisp hundred rand bills and a new mobile phone in his pocket around the time of the killings, Lappeman said.
The poachers fired on the rhino far from the game lodge, probably moving methodically closer as no one came to investigate the shots, he said. Lappeman said he and his father only found the dead rhinos the day after seeing the lost calf.
One wounded mother rhino walked all the way to the property's edge, finally dying on a dirt road to be found first thing that morning.
"She had physically come to the road to die, to say, 'I'm dying, come fetch my calf,'" Lappeman said.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .
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