23/12/2012 12:02 GMT | Updated 20/02/2013 05:12 GMT

The Fight Against Rhino Poachers in South Africa

The fight against rhino poachers in South Africa has become a war - and it is a war which requires the latest defence and security solutions.

It is a sad reality that poachers who were once individuals killing sporadically to boost their income are now organized in professional criminal gangs whose slaughter has pushed the rhino in Africa to the brink of extinction.

While black and white rhino populations have seen a period of respite from poaching since the 1970s and 1980s, the last few years have seen a dramatic increase in killings.

In 2001, only a dozen rhinos were killed for their horns across Africa. The Kruger National Park has lost almost 400 this year alone.

This astounding figure is due to a huge demand with the wave of new wealth in East Asia. Tactics have changed: this organised crime is on the rise, and it is time to adopt appropriate measures to overcome the problem.

These people cannot be reasoned with. They are criminal gangs far more sophisticated than ever, with access to helicopters, thermal imaging and advanced weaponry.

They cannot be stopped by incidental observation and haphazard reporting to the authorities, who often struggle with limited budgets and only occasional international attention.

The thousands of African park rangers across the continent whose lives are daily under threat, need their dedication to be backed up with the tools to do their job, and the institutional support to defeat the problem.

Since 2010, 760 rhinos out of a population of 1,269 in the Kruger National Park have been killed by illegal poachers selling their horns to traders in Asian countries such as China and Vietnam, where the horn is prized due to the belief that it has medicinal benefits and can cure ailments such as impotence.

As a South African, the problems of the Kruger are of personal significance to me and my family, which is why my foundation has donated a $2.5 million state-of-the-art aerial surveillance aircraft equipped with infrared detectors, similar to those used in unmanned drones, to help fight the poachers.

The aircraft donation is the first in a series of solutions that we are committed to sharing with SANPARKS, the South African National Parks authorities.

It will deliver a greatly enhanced observation capability to the park's rangers, making it very difficult for poachers to hide.

But, in itself, it will not be enough. However, I hope it acts as a signal to others that those protecting our irreplaceable wildlife need the tools to do their job in the face of armed, international gangs butchering African rhinos for horns that have no proven medical qualities.

Even then, better tools will not be enough: education is also required. The traditional beliefs in the powers of rhino horn need to be exposed as the myths they are, which means setting up programs in Asia to lead people away from outdated ideas and practices.

The global price of rhino horn has soared in recent years. Even museum exhibits have been targeted. Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asians sometimes bring back 'trophy' horns to East Asia under the guise of being big game hunters, even though many don't even know how to fire hunting rifle and are not legitimate hunters.

But attitudes about the importance of wildlife in South Africa are changing.

The grim realities of environmental crimes committed against wildlife and rhinos in particular are being recognised in South Africa with calls for tougher law enforcement and penalties.

Just this month a magistrate handed a stiff 40-year sentence to a self-confessed rhino horn trader and smuggler, the Thai national Chumlong Lemtongthai.

However, remarkably, while the survival of the African rhino is a major challenge facing South Africa, the future of this magnificent species may not be as bleak as we think.

Only a century ago, white rhinos numbered only a few dozen, whereas there are now about 4,000 white rhino, the majority in South Africa.

Starting in the 1960s, a huge rescue program was launched under the leadership of Dr. Ian Player who, together with South Africa's wildlife authorities, private game ranchers and voluntary associations of hunters and conservationists brought the white rhino back from the brink of extinction.

These magnificent wild animals are part of our national heritage, and we will not allow them to once again face the prospect of extinction.

It is time for these crimes to be recognised around the world, and with the right resources at our disposal, we can reverse this new trend and stop the rhino from another perilous decline. Those poachers will now realise that the authorities are watching, waiting and are more ready than ever.