Namibia's government has begun to dehorn rhinos living in its national parks and private conservation reserves in response to an increase in the number of animals killed by poachers, according to the country's Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
"Rhino poaching has risen dramatically, that is why we have to take some immediate and drastic measures," Deputy Environment Minister Pohamba Shifeta told Bloomberg News.
Fourteen rhinos have been killed in Namibia so far in 2014 and that worries Chris Weaver, managing director of the Namibia program at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
"It is minor in terms of the total population, but disturbing that more rhinos have been poached in the past year than the past ten years combined," Weaver told VICE News. "It is a worrying situation that could rapidly escalate if counter-measures are not effectively put in place."
Rhino horns are used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fever, rheumatism, and gout, among other ailments, according to Save the Rhino, a conservation group working in Africa and Asia. In Vietnam it has been promoted as a cure for hangovers and terminal illnesses. But a 2013 study by the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC found that demand for rhino horn was increasingly driven by its use as a status symbol among wealthy, urban Vietnamese men.
"While their reasons for purchasing and consuming rhino horn are linked to an underlying belief in its medicinal properties, there is a current trend of use to enhance social standing," said Jo Shaw of WWF South Asia.
While the black market trade in rhino horns occurs primarily in Vietnam, Weaver remains concerned about the level of poaching in Africa.
"Rhino poaching across the continent has escalated significantly over the past five years, and is a threat to the long-term viability of many African populations," he told VICE News.
Namibia is home to the world's largest population of black rhinos with 1,750 living in the southwest African nation out of a global count of 4,800.
The country's government will anesthetize the rhinos, sometimes from helicopters, and remove their horns using chainsaws or hacksaws, according to Save the Rhino.
Trade in rhino horns is banned under the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flaura. The Namibian authorities hope, however, that by obtaining the horns through non-lethal means the UN might allow them to be sold legally, thereby undercutting the black market trade.
The Namibians will focus their anti-poaching efforts in three areas where the animals are most threatened — the northern regions of Kunene and Omusati, both on the border with Angola, and Erongo in the west of the country.
In addition to dehorning rhinos, the government is creating an anti-poaching agency made up of 300 law enforcement agents that will patrol poorly monitored areas of national parks, Shifeta said. Surveillance drones will be used to track poachers, the minister added.
"Dehorning on its own will most likely not be adequate to prevent poaching," Weaver told VICE News. "It must be accompanied by stronger surveillance on the ground, better law enforcement, and more expedient prosecutions with higher penalties."
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