- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2014

JOHANNESBURG — American philanthropist Howard G. Buffett, the elder son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, arrived Thursday on a mission to preserve South Africa’s rhinos and protect them from poaching.

Mr. Buffett is scheduled to meet Friday with government officials and conservationists to discuss the slaughter of rhinos, whose horns are prized in Asian nations for their spurious medicinal properties. He will deliver a $23.7 million check to aid the conservation effort.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Buffet said that, although he is motivated by the need to protect wildlife, a major concern is that profits from poaching are helping fund rebel wars across Africa and terrorist groups around the globe.

“This is a criminal network that reaches around the world,” said Mr. Buffett. “Proceeds from ivory, rhino horn and other goods are funding conflicts in Africa and radical groups elsewhere.

“The best way to stop this is to cut off the money to those organizations, and that’s a part of what we’re doing while also saving the rhino,” he said. “In many ways, this is an experiment in peace, and hopefully we can replicate it in other parts of the world.”

Rhino horn can fetch up to $3,000 per ounce in China and Vietnam, where it is sold as a cure-all for ailments from impotence to cancer, though doctors say it has no medicinal value.

Last year, more than 1,000 were killed in South Africa, which is home to about 20,000 white and black rhinoceros — about 80 percent of the world’s population.

The northern white rhino has been reduced to just four animals in Kenya, and the only pair in captivity are housed at the San Diego Zoo.

Half of South Africa’s rhinos are in the Kruger National Park, a wilderness preserve about the size of Belgium that stretches more than 200 miles along the eastern border with Mozambique.

Of the 146 rhinos reported killed so far this year, 95 were in the Kruger preserve.

David Mabunda, chief executive of South African National Parks, described poaching as a scourge and said the country accepts Mr. Buffett’s donation “with great humility.”

“It is worrying that we are still losing such a high number of animals,” Mr. Mabunda said, “however, the most encouraging area in this whole saga is the increasing number of arrests, which stood at 343 for the country by end of last year.”

At the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, charge d’affaires Virginia Palmer welcomed the news of the Buffett donation.

In addition to a long history of conservation, the “U.S. also has a history of giving, and it’s wonderful to see private donors using their wealth as a force for good,” Ms. Palmer said.

Wildlife trafficking is a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise that has moved from a conservation concern to an acute security threat, she said.

In February, the U.S. government issued a national strategy for combating wildlife trafficking, which includes a ban on ivory and rhino horn.

South African courts impose prison terms on poachers of any wild animals, especially those of endangered species.

Army units are deployed at Kruger National Park, and more than 50 poachers have been killed in the past year in skirmishes with troops and ranger patrols.

Ainsley Hay, a veterinary nurse who manages the wildlife protection unit of the National Council of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Johannesburg, said poaching has wrought “appalling levels of suffering.”

“Rhinos weigh up to 3 tons, and it takes a lot to kill one,” Ms. Hay said. “Sometimes shots merely concuss the animal and it wakes up later with the horn and part of its face hacked off.”

The NSPCA would not hesitate to prosecute anyone who abuses animals, wild and domestic, she said.

“We help where we can in the war against poaching, but we’re not talking here about the odd shooting. These are crime syndicates, and research suggests they are linked with the trade in drugs, fake goods, smuggled tobacco and other contraband,” Ms. Hay said.

In South Africa, the NSPCA receives no government funding and relies solely on private donations.

“Loss of habitat is a major problem for wildlife, and I’m happy to see so many private reserves now in Africa,” Mr. Buffett said. “It’s no good, for example, having a lot of cheetah in one or two national parks where they could be wiped out by a virus. We must have gene pools on viable-size properties.”

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