Poachers Kill Extemely Rare White Rhino in Kenya

Sudan, a 20-year-old northern white rhino, arrives at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009.

Sudan, a 20-year-old northern white rhino, arrives at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009.  (AP Photo/Riccardo Gangale)

NAIROBI, Kenya — A group of poachers have killed a southern white rhino, an endangered species whose worldwide population is estimated at just 17,500, the head of Kenya's wildlife conservation agency said on Monday.

The poachers killed the rhino in a privately owned ranch in central Kenya on Dec. 28 and cut off its horns, said Julius Kipng'etich, the director of the Kenya Wildlife Service. 

Kenya Wildlife Service rangers tracked down the suspected poachers and suspected buyers on Sunday and caught them with two rhino horns weighing more than 16 pounds and 647,000 Kenyan shillings ($8,500) in cash, which is believed to be part of the money the poachers were paid for the horns, Kipng'etich told journalists.

He said in total 12 suspects, all of them Kenyans, have been arrested. Other suspects escaped and rangers are still tracking them, Kipng'etich said.

The late December killing occurred about a week after four of the world's last eight known northern white rhinos were brought to Kenya, where officials hope they will reproduce and save their subspecies.

Rhino horns sell for more than gold on a per-weight basis, and have been the reason for a huge poaching problem against the species. The horns are used to make dagger handles in the Middle East and for medicinal purposes in Asia.

The rhino is labeled as one of the big five, a category of must-see animals while on safari — the buffalo, elephant, leopard and lion being the others.

In the late 1970s and 1980s poachers decimated Kenya's rhinos, of which there are only two species in the country, white and black rhinos. Before the rampant poaching Kenya had an estimated 20,000 black rhinos in 1973. Today, black rhinos number only 610, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service.

White rhinos are even more endangered in Kenya with only 240 in the country.

The white rhino's name comes from the Dutch word "weit," meaning wide, which refers to its wide, square muzzle, adapted for grazing. The white rhino, whose real color is gray, has a pronounced hump on the neck and a long face.

The black, or hook-lipped, rhino has a thick, hairless, gray hide. Both species have two horns, the longer of which sits at the front of the nose.