JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's special police investigative unit on Friday arrested two Thai nationals suspected of having links to a rhino poaching syndicate in a crackdown on criminal gangs smuggling rhino horns to Asia, the Business Day reported.
The two men were arrested after their flight had landed from Thailand, the paper said. One of the men is said to already have a criminal record in South Africa for smuggling animal products such as lion bones. McIntosh Polela, spokesman for the special police unit, was not immediately available for comment.
More rhinos have been killed in South Africa in the past 10 months than in all of 2010, the WWF reported this week, citing figures from the South Africa National Parks. The figure stands at 341 animals lost to poaching, compared with a record total of 333 last year.
Local media said the two Thais would appear in court on Monday.
South Africa is home to 90 percent of Africa's white rhino population. 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.
Environment minister Edna Molewa told Reuters this week that the government has deployed military and security forces to patrol areas, but more needed to be done.
"The numbers may have been higher if not for the strict security measures that we have put in place," she said.
"But this is actually a well-organised crime."
She said communities were being involved to help monitor the areas and identify possible poachers. The government is also working with countries where the rhino horn is marketed to address the problem.
Another study has been conducted to assess whether de-horning of rhinos would help or whether it would have negative behavioural consequences for the animals. If all fails, a ban on rhino hunting may need to be put in place, she said.
But even then, only certain areas would be affected by such a ban to limit the economic impact of restrictions on communities who rely on hunting and to not interfere with measures where hunting is used to manage the rhino population.
"It may well be that it's a particular province where we still have many weaknesses that we can't remedy. That's when we have to say 'let's put a stop on it' and actually get our house in order in this area," she said.
(Reporting by Agnieszka Flak, editing by Rosalind Russell)