By Peroshni Govender
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa has taken its war against rhino poaching to the skies by deploying a high-tech, low-speed reconnaissance aircraft to detect illegal hunters before they strike.
"This is a war. You cannot take a stick to a gunfight," Ivor Ichikowitz, executive chairman of Africa's largest privately held defense firm, Paramount, said on Tuesday. Paramount manufactured the small, specialized plane donated to the South Africa National Park Service.
South Africa, home to nearly all the continent's rhinos, is on the frontline of a poaching war where criminals with high-powered weapons, helicopters and night vision goggles have been killing the animals for their horns, which sell at prices higher than gold in Asia as a traditional medicine.
The anti-poaching aircraft named Seeker, shown to reporters on Tuesday, is equipped with sophisticated heat sensors to detect animals and humans on the ground, and a quiet engine.
This will aid pilots and spotters as they fly at high altitudes over South Africa's flagship Kruger National Park which borders with Mozambique. Most of the illicit rhino killings take place in this park.
At the start of December, 558 rhinos have been killed this year by poachers, with 364 of the deaths in Kruger - a park roughly the same size as Israel. The death toll has already hit a new annual record, surpassing the 448 killed in all of 2011.
South Africa has deployed its military to protect rhinos but that has not been enough to curb international crime syndicates which traffic the horns.
The number of rhinos being killed in South Africa has now reached a level likely to lead to population decline, according to expert studies.
Poaching has increased dramatically from about 2007 as a growing affluent class in China, Vietnam and Thailand began spending more on rhino horn as a traditional medicine.
It is used to treat a variety of ailments, including 'devil possession' but is now also seen as a cancer cure - a claim not backed by science.
(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)