By Pascal Fletcher
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - American philanthropist Howard G. Buffett donated $24 million to South Africa's national parks service on Friday to fund a high-tech campaign against rhino poaching which he compared to the United States' war on drugs on its southern border.
Buffett, son of billionaire investor and Berkshire Hathaway Inc chairman Warren Buffett, one of the world's richest men, presented the 255 million rand cheque to South African authorities at Standard Bank offices in Johannesburg.
The money will fund a 30-month campaign to try to reverse a losing battle being fought against rhino poachers in the flagship Kruger Park, where illegal hunters infiltrating from Mozambique have been decimating the rhino population.
It will provide park rangers with a helicopter and other high-tech equipment, such as an aerostat balloon and land vehicles equipped with sophisticated electronic sensors, to track down poachers. The project also plans to place sensors on fencing along the border with neighboring Mozambique.
"This is very much like our drug war on our U.S./Mexican border," said Howard Buffett, referring to the campaign by American and Mexican authorities against narcotics traffickers.
South Africa, which is home to almost all of the world's rhinos, lost 1,004 of the massive animals to poachers in 2013, compared with 668 the previous year and 448 in 2011.
Most of the killings are taking place in the Kruger Park, which lost 606 rhinos last year, and 113 so far this year. South Africa's rhino population totals around 20,000.
"We are losing the battle all across the continent ... we have to fight it every place we can," Buffett said.
Rhino hunting is driven by soaring demand in newly affluent Asian countries such as Vietnam and China, where the animal's horns are prized as a key ingredient in traditional medicine.
Howard Buffett, through his charitable foundation, has supported farming, wildlife conservation and poverty alleviation projects across Africa, often concentrating on hotspots which are suffering from conflict or the aftermath of wars.
"When you see what conflict does to people, you cannot turn away. That conflict is fuelled by rhino horns, elephant ivory," said Buffett, referring to the close link between insurgencies and conflicts in Africa and trafficking of natural resources.
Rhino horn has a street value of more than $65,000 a kg in Asia, making it more valuable than platinum, gold or cocaine.
South Africa's Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, said Pretoria was working with Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos to try to curb the demand.
"Fighting and winning the battle in South Africa is fighting and winning the battle in the world," she said.
Retired South African Maj. Gen. Johan Jooste, who is leading the fight against poaching in the Kruger, said his rangers were confronting hundreds of poachers who had made their bases in villages on the Mozambican side, in Maputo and Gaza provinces.
Criminal syndicates promise cash to poor and unemployed villagers willing to take the risk of hunting down the animals.
Jooste envisaged a hard campaign. "The talking is the easy part, this is not a sprint, it's a marathon," he told Reuters. ($1 = 10.7215 South African Rand)
(Reporting By Pascal Fletcher; editing by David Dolan and Toby Chopra)