, KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, Mar 21- The rhinoceros walking down the road at South Africa\’s largest game reserve had no horns, one of the few to survive a surge in poaching that has sent killings to a 15-year high.
A startled tourist alerted game rangers to the animal, the first time a poached rhino had been found still alive at Kruger National Park.
"That was really the first case that I know of where we found a rhino which the horn was removed and it was struggling on the road," said Kruger spokesman William Mabasa.
His theory is that poachers used a tranquiliser to let them remove the rhino\’s horns silently.
Although the animal survived the amputation, veterinarians were unable to save its life.
"They eventually had to destroy it because the wound was rather too big," Mabasa said.
Two rhinos at a nature reserve near Pretoria suffered a similar fate earlier this month after poachers overdosed them with tranquilisers.
Their fate is emblematic of an insidious turn in the poaching trade, a top agenda item at the general assembly of the 175-nation wildlife treaty CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) underway in Doha.
Black-market demand for rhino horn has soared in the past several years, largely due to the economic boom in east and southeast Asia, where the horn is used for medicinal purposes.
That surge in demand has combined with endemic poverty in many rhino habitats to push rhino poaching worldwide to the highest levels seen in 15 years, according to the wildlife monitoring group Traffic.
South Africa and neighbouring Zimbabwe are responsible for 95 percent of the poaching, Traffic said.
Now conservation experts and South African parks officials say international crime syndicates have entered the trade.
The syndicates sponsor organised hunts and, increasingly, use helicopters, military-grade guns and prescription tranquilisers to pursue their prey.
"Current rhino poaching trends indicate a high level of organisation and crime syndication at the local, national, regional and international levels," Reynold Thakhuli, spokesman for South Africa National Parks, told AFP.
"Rhino poaching activity has escalated dramatically throughout South Africa," he said.
South Africa\’s national parks say they lost 36 rhinos to poaching in 2008 and 50 in 2009.
The country has already lost 31 rhinos to poaching so far this year, according to the International Rhino Foundation.
Mabasa said the escalation has hit Kruger Park particularly hard.
"We\’d never had an amount of poaching that I would refer to as a problem — not until last year," he said.
"I think the highest we\’d ever had before was seven in one year" in 2008, he said. "Then in 2009 we lost 41."
International police agency Interpol is moving to crack down on the trade.
In February the organisation carried out a month-long sting operation that led to the seizure of 10 million euros (13.6 million dollars) in illegal wildlife medicines and a series of arrests worldwide.
But more international efforts will be needed to reduce rhino poaching in southern Africa, said Oubaas Coetzer, an inspector with the South African Police Service at Kruger National Park.
Coetzer said local police have had success in making low-level arrests. Last year, they arrested 47 rhino poachers for 50 poaching incidents.
But poaching only increased.
"We cannot do anything about the black market price," Coetzer told AFP.
"So you catch somebody in the syndicate, he\’s now out of action. But there are still lots of others that can fill that space, because of the money. It\’s organised crime," he said.
"Arresting people and sending them to jail is not stopping (poaching). The only thing that can help is to reduce or completely stop the trade in rhino horn."