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Wed, 05 Dec 2012 11:32 - Updated Wed, 05 Dec 2012 11:23

South Africa to use aircraft against rhino poachers

South Africa

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Pretoria - South Africa is to deploy a reconnaissance airplane to combat a massive rise in rhino poaching.

The plane will be equipped with surveillance equipment including thermal imaging to detect poachers.

It will patrol over the Kruger National Park, a vast reserve that borders Mozambique and home to two-thirds of South Africa's rhino population.

So far this year 588 rhinos have been killed in South Africa, in what is being called a "relentless onslaught".

That figure has risen from just 13 reported cases in 2007 as organised and well-armed crime syndicates target the animals.

South Africa is home to the world's largest rhino population - an estimated 18,000 white rhinos and 1,700 critically endangered black rhino.

The rhino horn is highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, even though there is no scientific proof of its effects. It sells for around $95,000 (£60,000) per kilo, almost twice the value of gold.

The director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Jason Bell, said: "The killing of rhinos for their horns does not exist in a vacuum, but is a complex problem where values of tradition and culture have been corrupted in the name of commercial exploitation."

"Be it elephants and ivory, tigers and tiger parts, rhinos and rhino horn, the endpoint is the same - profit. And that profit is being chased down in the most brutal fashion by organised crime syndicates."

So far this year, South Africa has already armed some of its park rangers and deployed dog patrols to try and stop the poachers.

The surveillance airplane for the Kruger National Park was donated by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, whose chairman Ivor Ichikowitz said: "You have to fight fire with fire."

"This thermal imaging technology will deliver more powerful observation capability to the Kruger National Park's rangers, making it difficult for poachers to hide."