JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African rhino poaching syndicate broken up this week is believed to be a major supplier of illegal horns to the international black market, police said on Tuesday.
Rhino poaching in South Africa has increased this year owing to booming demand and rising prices for rhino horn from increasingly rich Asian markets, where it is used as a medicine.
"The products are sold to the overseas market," said police spokesman Vishnu Naidoo.
Nine people were arrested on Monday, including a businessman and two veterinarians who police said were involved in several hundred incidents of rhino poaching over the past years.
"The businessman and the vets are ... considered to be the masterminds of the syndicate," police said in a statement.
"Detectives have identified other syndicates and are close to bringing more of these culprits to book," it said.
Police said 204 rhinos had been killed so far this year, up from the 122 killed in all of 2009, and despite Africa setting aside more funds for rangers, equipment and policing to crack down on the trans-border crime.
The government has banned the hunting and sale of rhino products in an effort to stop poaching, but with little success.
Rhino horn has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, where it was ground into a powder and often mixed with hot water to treat maladies including rheumatism, gout, high fever and even possession by the devil.
In recent years, it has taken on the reputation for being an aphrodisiac and gained in popularity among the newly rich in Vietnam and other southeast Asian states, where it is seen as a cancer remedy, studies have found.
This has caused the price of rhino horn to rise to $56,690 a kilogram, making it far more expensive than gold, according to the International Rhino Foundation.
It said the typical adult rhino has about 7 kg (15.4 pounds) of horns, which would translate to about $40 million worth of value being taken by poachers in South Africa so far this year.
South Africa was home to about 90 percent of the white rhinos in Africa at the end of 2007 with just over 16,000, conservation groups say.
(Editing by Marius Bosch and Giles Elgood)
(For more news, visit Reuters India)