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FLORA AND FAUNA
Kenya jails Chinese ivory smuggler in landmark ruling
by Staff Writers
Nairobi (AFP) Aug 22, 2013


Poachers kill rare rhinos in India as drones halted
Guwahati, India (AFP) Aug 22, 2013 - An armed gang has killed two rare rhinoceros at a wildlife park in northeast India, as officials said Thursday drones deployed to stem the rising number of killings have been halted.

Poachers used assault rifles to shoot dead the rhinoceros before gouging out their horns at the park in Assam state on Wednesday, taking the total number slaughtered there this year to 27, officials said.

"Poachers used AK 47 to shot dead the rhinos. We have recovered empty cartridges from the site of the incident," a park ranger said, requesting not to be named.

Assam forest minister Rockybul Hussain said the killings at Kaziranga National Park, a world heritage site, were carried out by "militants", while declining to name the outfit thought responsible.

Hussain also said the state has been forced to halt drone flights over the reserve aimed at safeguarding the one-horned rhinoceros, the first time the country had used aerial technology to protect wildlife.

He said the federal defence ministry has ordered an end to the use of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for security reasons, a blow in the campaign to protect the rhinos.

"For security reasons we have been asked by the defence ministry to discontinue the UAV. We want the central government to review the decision," the minister told reporters.

He said he would not reveal what the security concerns were.

The government hailed the drones in April this year as a new weapon in the fight against poachers, allowing patrols of previously unreachable areas, from the sky, and giving rangers a safe view of illegal activities on the ground.

The 430-square-kilometre (166 square-mile) park in Assam is home to the largest concentration of the world's remaining one-horned rhinoceros.

Kaziranga has fought a sustained battle against poachers who kill the animals for their horns, which fetch huge prices in some Asian countries where they are prized for their supposed aphrodisiac and medicinal qualities.

Forest department records show 27 rhinos have been killed in the park this year, up from 21 last year, prompting the Assam government to hand over investigations to India's Central Bureau of Investigation, the equivalent of the FBI in the United Sates.

"The CBI investigations are on and hopefully they are able to finish their probe soon," the minister said.

A 2012 census in the park put the number of one-horned rhinoceros at 2,290 out of a global population of 3,300.

The species fell to near extinction in the early 1990s and is currently listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Endangered Asiatic lion cub born at French zoo
Paris (AFP) Aug 22, 2013 - A rare Asiatic lion cub, whose species is endangered with only about 350 in the wild, has been born at a zoo in the French city of Besancon, officials said Thursday.

"It's a baby girl, she is in great shape. We are observing her in the big-cat house from a distance thanks to a system of cameras," Gerard Galliot, chief conservationist at the zoo at the Citadel of Besancon, told AFP.

The cub was born on August 14 and weighs about 1.5 kilogrammes (3.3 pounds). She is expected to reach a weight of 130 kilogrammes (285 pounds) within two years.

Her father Tejas, born at a zoo in the British city of Bristol, arrived in Besancon, in eastern France, in 2008, while her mother, Shiva, was born in Besancon in 2005.

Listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the Asiatic lion (panthera leo persica) was once widely distributed across southwest Asia but is now restricted to a single population in India's Gir Forest.

Kenya sentenced a Chinese ivory smuggler to two and a half years in prison Thursday in a landmark ruling hailed as sending a powerful warning to poachers and smugglers.

The illegal ivory trade, estimated to be worth between $7 billion and $10 billion a year, is mostly fuelled by demand in Asia and the Middle East, where elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns are used in traditional medicine and to make ornaments.

"A precedent has been set by this sentencing, it is a sign that our judiciary is waking up to the scale of the crisis and the damage that is being done to our animals," Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) spokesman Paul Udoto told AFP.

Chen Biemei, 30, was jailed for 31 months for trying to smuggle 6.9 kilogrammes (15 pounds) of worked ivory she had disguised as 15 bags of macadamia nuts.

Chen, who pleaded guilty, was nabbed on August 14 as she tried to fly to Hong Kong.

Despite a surge of rhino and elephant killings across Kenya -- and elsewhere in Africa -- previous cases have seen smugglers escape with minimal fines and then set free.

In March, a Kenyan court handed a relatively small fine of less than $350 to a Chinese smuggler caught with a haul of more than 400 finger-length ivory pieces.

Such fines pose little if any deterrence, as experts say a kilogramme of ivory has a black market value of roughly $2,500.

A total of 17 people from six different countries have been arrested trying to smuggle ivory out of Kenya since the beginning of this year, according to KWS.

"It is the longest such sentence I have seen for a long time," Udoto said. "Now those who want to damage our wildlife must also test our prison system."

Last year poachers slaughtered 384 elephants in Kenya, up from 289 in 2011, according to official figures, from a total population of around 35,000. More than 160 elephants have been killed so far in 2013, the KWS says.

Saving wildlife is crucial for Kenya, a top safari destination and heavily reliant on tourism for foreign currency earnings.

The sentencing comes as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta wraps up a state visit to China, where among a raft of economic and trade deals signed included one also to boost "wildlife protection".

Kenyatta's wife Margaret is spearheading an anti-poaching drive aimed at saving elephants and rhinos.

Kenya's government has also said it plans to bolster lenient sentences for wildlife crime in a bid to stamp out a spike in elephant and rhino poaching. The KWS is meanwhile boosting it's anti-poaching force, said to be facing increasingly well-equipped and ruthless hunters.

Demand for ivory and rhino horn comes primarily from China, conservationists say, and many accuse the Chinese authorities of not doing enough to stop the illicit ivory trade.

Africa is now home to an estimated 472,000 elephants, whose survival is threatened by poaching as well as a rising human population that is causing habitat loss.

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