HOEDSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA — South Africa is known around the world for its breathtaking wildlife. The country is home to an astounding number of mammal species. But some, like elephants and lions, face a serious threat from poachers. Animal parts are being sold for high profits on black markets, particularly in Asia. Protecting the wildlife from poachers is a top priority in a private game park in South Africa.
This private South African game park is home to hundreds of mammals. This area, part of the larger Kruger National Park region, is also a hotbed for animal poachers. They kill elephants for their ivory tusks and lions for their bones. The poachers are also targeting rhinos for their horns.
Park Ranger C.J. Lombard has seen the devastating impact of rhino poaching.
"You find a female that's been hacked apart and the calf next to a dead mother, knowing that the calf has been staying there for weeks with its mom - refusing to leave the mom and dying of starvation. It really does make you very angry," said Lombard.
The South African government says more than a thousand rhinos were killed by poachers in 2013, the highest number on record. Already in January more than 37 rhinos have been slain.
In Asian countries rhino horn, which is believed to have some medicinal value, can sell for about $60,000 per kilo.
Lombard and his tracker Patrick Moyane guide tourists through the game park. They're also part of frontline efforts to stop poaching within this 11,000 hectare private park.
"As a member of a team if I can find the poachers we will catch them and put them in jail," said Moyane.
This game park has increased security as part of a number of anti poaching measures.
C.J. and Patrick are tracking rhinos here at the Thornybush Game Reserve in South Africa. One of the initiatives that is being done at this park to stop rhino poaching is to inject poison into each of the rhinos' horns, making it unsuitable for human consumption.
Another measure used to protect the rhino from extinction includes farming them and harvesting their valuable horns. The horns grow, much like hair and nails do.
Lombard says he favors a South African government proposal to sell some of its stockpile of rhino horns to finance conservation and potentially flood a thriving black market.
"Maybe it works manybe it doesn't work. I think anything is worth trying at this point as long as it does not create a new niche to make rich men richer at the cost of our wildlife," he said.
Some argue legalizing the sale of rhino horns will drive up demand.
Chief park ranger Juan Pinto says more public awareness campaigns are needed to stop animal poaching.
"For me the biggest issue is it is a belief. It is someone's belief that the rhino horn gives them this benefit and you cannot change a belief because belief is stronger than fact," said Pinto.
Lombard and Moyane keep an eye out for poaching activity during game viewing excursions. They say until other anti-poaching measures prove successful, they will continue to work with the park's security teams to protect the animals.