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Africa's fight on rhino, elephant poachers aided

By Jason Straziuso

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 23 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

In South Africa, a park ranger describes a war of attrition in which poaching syndicates dispatch what seems like an endless stream of triggermen, some with military training, to hunt rhinos for their horns. Officials said seven suspected poachers died in four separate confrontations with Kruger rangers last weekend.

"Currently, they're trying to overwhelm us," said Bruce Leslie, a conservationist-turned-combatant in Kruger National Park, South Africa's flagship game reserve. "They're just trying to send in the masses, the cannon fodder, if you like. Expendable people. It's the middle men that actually need to go to jail."

Rangers want to operate more effectively at night, a task made somewhat easier with the donation late last year of an unarmed, former British military helicopter that will allow pilots to scout with night vision equipment and thermal cameras. The Gazelle helicopter was given by businessman Ivor Ichikowitz on behalf of his family foundation and Paramount Group, a South African aerospace and defense firm that he founded.

David Mabunda, CEO of South African National Parks, noted: "He who owns the night wins the war. So far, the poachers have been owning the night." He hopes the new equipment will help swing the balance in favor of the rangers.

Kruger's rangers, who get help from South African National Defense Force troops, also use low-tech approaches, following poachers' tracks with the help of sniffer dogs and spending days in the bush with minimal gear.

Park officials say poachers often slip across the border from neighboring Mozambique. Periodic shootouts usually occur far from tourists, who can only tour about 7 percent of a park that is the size of some small countries.

Home to most of Africa's rhinos, South Africa lost 1,004 to poachers last year, more than half of them in Kruger. The horn is sold for high prices in some parts of Asia, particularly Vietnam, where some view it as a status symbol and a medicine despite no evidence that it can cure ailments.

The U.K. government next month will host a conference attended by Prince Charles on the illegal wildlife trade to improve the prospects for the world's elephants, rhinos and tigers.

Torchia reported from Johannesburg.

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