By Drazen Jorgic
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Two armed gangs killed four rhinos for their horns in rural Kenya this week in possibly the worst rhino poaching incident in the country in more than 25 years, the spokesman for Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) said on Friday.
Poaching across sub-Saharan Africa is on the rise as armed criminal gangs kill elephants for tusks and rhinos for horns, usually to be shipped to Asia for use in ornaments and medicines.
The poaching on Wednesday night took place at the private Ol Jogi ranch near Nanyuki, about 200 km (120 miles) north of Nairobi.
Paul Muya, a spokesman for KWS which has overall responsibility for wildlife in Kenya, told Reuters the rhino bodies were found on two separate sites on the 58,000-acre ranch and the poachers escaped with three of the animals' eight horns.
One conservationist said the Ol Jogi raid was the worst poaching incident in Kenya since five white rhinos were killed in one swoop in Meru Park in 1988. Muya said he also believed it to be the biggest attack since then.
"They’ve got high levels of security there, so the implications are that really rhino are not safe anywhere," said the conservationist, who did not wish to be named.
The killings take the number of rhinos poached in Kenya so far this year to 22, which leaves just 1,037 rhinos still roaming private wildlife conservancies and KWS national parks, Muya said.
Last year, 59 rhinos were poached in Kenya, a country famous for its sprawling Maasai Mara game park and abundant wildlife.
Kenya's parliament has passed strict anti-poaching laws and the government has beefed up security at parks to stop poaching, which threatens the vital tourism industry.
Muya said KWS officials were meeting with national police and intelligence officials to discuss the issue.
Kenya has also emerged as a major transit route for ivory destined for Asian markets from eastern and central Africa in recent years.
Rhino horn sold on the streets of major Asian cities was last year more valuable than gold or platinum, with traders asking for about $65,000 per kg of rhino horn. A kg of gold is currently worth about $42,920 while a kg of platinum is $48,450.
Kenya has started using high-tech surveillance equipment including drones to track poaching gangs and keep tabs on elephants and rhinos roaming its sweeping national parks.
Officers seized 13.5 tonnes of ivory at the port city of Mombasa last year, mostly originating from other countries in the region.
Richard Vigne, chief executive of the Ol Pejeta conservancy, said rhino poaching will continue as long as there is demand from Asia, particularly from Vietnam.
"This kind of poaching is going to continue as so much money is involved," Vigne said.
(Additional reporting by Noor Ali in Isiolo; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)