South Africa creates rhino stronghold in flagship wildlife reserve to thwart poacher killings

The rhino crashes forward, pounding the earth with its broad feet. Then, as a dart's sedative takes hold, it staggers and slouches to the ground, where South African rangers prepare to move the oversized beast by truck to an area they hope is safe from poachers.

Kruger National Park has conducted about 45 such captures since last month, part of a plan to create a stronghold within the country's flagship reserve where rhinos will get extra protection from poachers, many of whom cross from neighboring Mozambique and are slaughtering the animals in increasing numbers. Some rhinos were moved to other parks, and the relocation "experiment," as rangers describe it, is likely to escalate next year.

Safe havens or buffer zones have been hotly debated over the years as a way to protect civilians in some of the world's major conflicts. South Africa is applying a variation of the idea to wildlife to try to stem surging demand for rhino horn. Some consumers in Asia, primarily Vietnam and China, view rhino horn as a status symbol and a healing agent despite a lack of evidence that it can cure. The horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in human fingernails.

The so-called "intensive protection zone" in the southern part of Kruger National Park took on new urgency when South Africa, home to 80 percent of the world's rhinos, announced Thursday that 1,020 rhinos have been poached so far in 2014, exceeding last year's record of 1,004.

About two-thirds of the rhinos poached this year died in Kruger, a park that's about the size of Israel and larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut. Poachers often dodge an overstretched force of 400 rangers as well as some military units that monitor the 350-kilometer (220-mile) border between Kruger and Mozambique, and they shoot rhinos just before sunset and scoot back to Mozambique under cover of night, according to rangers.

The protection zone encompasses about 5,000 square kilometers (1,900 square miles), or at least one-quarter of the park, and is already home to many of Kruger's roughly 10,000 rhinos — half the national population. Rhinos were reintroduced in southern Kruger in the 1960s after poachers had wiped them out.

The goal is "to basically ensure that you've got a foundation of animals that are secure and that you can use as a source population to take elsewhere," said Markus Hofmeyr, head of veterinary services at Kruger park.

Kruger will focus aircraft, ranger teams and high-tech surveillance on the zone. The initiative is partly funded by American philanthropist Howard Buffett, a son of investor Warren Buffett who pledged nearly $24 million to Kruger's anti-poaching efforts. Howard Buffett has said some of the same methods used by the United States to monitor its border with Mexico will be used in Kruger, including aerostats — large, tethered balloons with infrared cameras that scan the landscape.

This week, journalists watched separate operations in which two rhinos were removed from poaching "hotspots" near the Mozambique border and loaded onto trucks for transfer to the protection zone. The animals were darted from a helicopter, which then flew low, herding them toward a road. Once the rhinos were subdued and blindfolded, rangers took blood and skin samples and installed a microchip in the horns as a way to identify Kruger's stock, all the while monitoring body temperature and even pouring water on one rhino to cool it.

The sedative must be strong enough to immobilize a rhino but weak enough so that the animal can, with men pushing and pulling it with a rope, walk into a crate. Hofmeyr said he can administer an injection that partly reverses the effect of the sedative.

Relocated rhinos have adapted well to their new home, said Dr. Sam Ferreira, a large mammal ecologist at Kruger.

He said: "It's like they're coming to a Saturday afternoon party."