S. Africa fighting back against rhino poachers

JOHANNESBURG — Park rangers in South Africa are cracking down, hard and with lethal force, on rhinoceros poaching. Nine alleged poachers have already been killed this year by rangers, twice as many as in all of 2010.

The sharp increase in the number of poacher deaths has gone hand-in-hand with an uptick in the number of killings by poachers of rhinos for their horns, which fetch top dollar in Asia, where they're prized for their purported medicinal powers.

The rangers only fire on poachers in self-defense, insisted Bandile Mkhize, chief executive of KwaZulu-Natal parks and a former top manager at South Africa's premier Kruger park.

"The major problem is that the poachers are heavily armed," he said. "Do we allow them to shoot our rangers as well as our rhinos?"

Last year, 333 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa, nearly three times as many as in 2009. Park rangers have responded by stepping up training and patrols. South African army troops are even expected to join anti-poaching patrols in Kruger, which is the size of Israel and is in northeast part of the country near Mozambique, later this year.

Wildlife agents in Kenya undergo paramilitary training and hunt down suspected poachers using battlefield tactics. In December 2009, poachers shot and killed a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger. In response, wildlife agents set up an ambush of the suspects and killed two of them. Armed wildlife agents walk Kenya's national parks on foot to hunt for poachers.

Kenyan wildlife agents shot and killed five poachers in November, the highest ever in one month.