Rhino Evacuation Planned for Hundreds in S. Africa

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South Africa plans to evacuate hundreds of rhino from the famed Kruger National Park to safe havens beyond horn smugglers' reach, the environment minister announced Tuesday.

"A decision has been made on this issue of translocation," Edna Molewa said, announcing an action plan to curb escalating illegal hunts for rhino horn. "Relocations from the Kruger National Park and the creation of rhino strongholds could allow the total rhino population size of South Africa to continue to grow," she said.

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The authorities "could relocate up to 500" rhino, which can weigh a ton or more, said South African National Parks ecologist Sam Ferreira.

Illegal rhino killings have spiked from 13 in 2007 to 1,004 last year, steadily increasing despite the deployment of soldiers in the vast nature reserve, which is roughly the size of Wales or Israel.

The animals' horns -- made from the same material as finger nails -- are coveted in some Asian countries as a traditional medicine and as a status symbol.

There are thought to be as few as 8,400 white rhinos and around 2,000 black rhinos left in Kruger Park, which has been hardest hit by poaching, though other national parks and private reserves have also fallen prey.

Now some rhinos will be moved from areas of high poaching activity inside the Kruger -- such as the eastern boundary which forms the border with Mozambique. Most poachers are thought to be recruited from the impoverished neighboring country by middlemen who send the horns on through organized crime syndicates.

The relocated rhinos will find new homes in other state-owned provincial parks, private parks and communal areas. Neighboring countries are also being considered as hosts, according to the environmental ministry.

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There is no timeframe yet for the mass operation.

"We are looking at capturing about six to eight animals a day in the cooler months," said the national parks head of veterinary services Markus Hofmeyer.

The summer season returns to the country in the latter part of the year, suggesting the moves might only be on the cards in the southern hemisphere autumn next April.

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