JOHANNESBURG — Mozambique’s rhinoceros population was wiped out more than a century ago by big game hunters. Reconstituted several years ago, the beasts again are on the brink of vanishing from the country by poachers seeking their horns for sale in Asia.
A leading expert told The Associated Press that the last rhino in the southern African nation has been killed. The warden of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park — the only place where the horned behemoths lived in Mozambique — also says poachers have wiped out the rhinos. Mozambique’s conservation director believes a few may remain.
Elephants also could vanish in Mozambique soon, the warden of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, Antonio Abacar, told AP. He said game rangers have been aiding poachers, and 30 of the park’s 100 rangers will appear in court soon.
“We caught some of them red-handed while directing poachers to a rhino area,” Abacar said.
A game ranger arrested for helping poachers in Mozambique’s northern Niassa Game Reserve said on Mozambican Television TVM last week that he was paid 2,500 meticais (about $80) to direct poachers to areas with elephants and rhinos. Game rangers are paid between 2,000 and 3,000 meticais ($64 to $96) a month.
While guilty rangers will lose their jobs, the courts serve as little deterrent to the poachers: killing wildlife and trading in illegal rhino horn and elephant tusks are only misdemeanors in Mozambique.
“Their legal system is far from adequate and an individual found guilty is given a slap on the wrist and then they say ‘OK. Give me my horn back,’” said Michael H. Knight, chairman of the African Rhino Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission.
A meeting of the group in February reported there might, possibly, be one white rhino left in Mozambique and no black rhinos at all, Knight said.
According to Abacar: “We have already announced the extinction of the rhino population in Limpopo National Park.”
But Bartolomeu Soto, director of Mozambique’s transfrontier conservation unit, told the AP, “We believe we still have rhinos, though we don’t know how many.”
Mozambican news reports have said the last 15 rhinos in the park were slaughtered in the past month, but park officials said those reports were wrong. Soto said the misunderstanding had arisen over Abacar’s statement to journalists that he had not seen a rhino in the three months since he was put in charge of the large park.
The price of rhino horn has overtaken the price of gold as demand has burgeoned in Asian countries, mainly China and Vietnam, where consumers wrongly believe that the horn — made of the same substance as fingernails — has powerful healing properties.