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South Africa: American philanthropist pledges $24 million to protect rhinos in flagship park

A son of investor Warren Buffett has pledged nearly $24 million for protecting rhinos in South Africa, earmarking the money for ranger teams, sniffer dogs and other security measures in what he hopes can be a robust model for fighting what he calls the "overwhelming" problem of poaching in parts of Africa.

Howard Buffett said Friday that the three-year program in one-third of the vast Kruger National Park, which struggles to contain poachers crossing from neighboring Mozambique, will employ some of the same methods used by the United States to monitor its border with Mexico. They include aerostats, large, tethered balloons with infrared cameras that can scan the landscape around the clock.

"We're going to do it at a scale that hasn't been done," Buffett said in an interview with The Associated Press. He described the initiative, which will also focus on cross-border criminal investigations and intelligence networks, as way of learning "what works and what doesn't work" in a southern area of the park that has 4,000 rhinos. South African is home to most of the continent's rhinos.

Buffett acknowledged that the $23.7 million initiative doesn't directly address soaring demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and other parts of Asia where it is viewed as a status symbol and a healing agent for serious illness, although there is no evidence that rhino horn, made from the same material as fingernails, is an effective medicine.

"I have no illusions about this," said Buffett, who announced the initiative with the South African national parks service at Standard Bank headquarters in Johannesburg. "This is an overwhelming issue."

Parts of a fence once separating Kruger park from a national park on the Mozambican side were removed a decade ago to encourage wildlife migration, but the surge in rhino poaching has prompted some calls to restore the barrier. The South African government said Friday that poachers had killed 172 rhinos so far this year, two-thirds of them in Kruger park. Last year, 1,004 rhinos were poached in South Africa, three times as many as in 2010.

Buffett's Illinois-based foundation aims to assist poor communities around the world, including in areas torn by conflict. It views poaching in Africa, particularly of elephant ivory, as part of a broader problem in which armed groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army, which originated in Uganda, get funding from the illegal trade. Buffett also cited links between poaching in Tanzania and al-Shabab, a Somalia-based extremist group with ties to al-Qaida.

In January, the U.N. Security Council targeted illegal wildlife traffickers for sanctions in resolutions against armed groups in Congo and the Central African Republic. Conservationists described the measures as a major shift on a problem that has morphed from an environmental issue into a security threat.

In Mozambique, clashes have broken out in the past year between the government and Renamo, a former rebel group that fought in a civil war until a peace deal in 1992. Many analysts, including Buffett, say they have yet to see any evidence linking Renamo to poaching, including cross-border forays into Kruger park.

The philanthropist compared the tie between armed groups and poaching to human trafficking.

"It's so underground and it's so difficult to rout out, but clearly it's there, and clearly the results are incredibly negative," Buffett said. "Just because you can't prove everything doesn't mean that you don't keep trying to go after it."