South Africa: Pilot, lawyer and other members of alleged rhino-poaching ring appear in court

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PRETORIA, South Africa — A pilot, a lawyer, a police officer and other South African members of an alleged poaching ring accused of killing two dozen rhinos over several years appeared Monday in a court in Pretoria, South Africa's capital.

A judge ordered the group's alleged ringleader, Hugo Ras, and several other suspects to remain in custody until a bail hearing on Oct. 8, and the bail applications of others were to be reviewed for a second day Tuesday. A total of 10 suspects crowded onto a long courtroom bench in a case that conservationists say shows the sophistication of poaching syndicates seeking to cash in on growing demand for rhino horn in parts of Asia, including China and Vietnam.

The poaching ring operated in five of South Africa's nine provinces and was involved in "the brutal slaughter and mutilation of 24 rhinos in state-owned and privately owned game reserves" between 2008 and 2012, according to a police statement. The group also stole rhino horns or got them by other "devious means," illegally obtaining a total of 84 horns, police said.

The suspects were arrested Sept. 19 in simultaneous operations in several provinces after a yearlong investigation by police and other agencies.

Ras, who allegedly managed the poaching ring for five years, stood in the dock alongside his wife Trudie, who is also a suspected member of the poaching ring. He kissed her before guards led him out of the courtroom.

Home to most of the world's rhinos, South Africa is struggling to stem a surge in rhino poaching in recent years. About 790 rhinos have been poached so far this year, most of them in the Kruger National Park, the country's flagship wildlife reserve, according to government statistics. About 1,000 rhinos were poached in 2013, three times more than in 2010.

Some consumers in Asia view rhino horn as a status symbol and a healing agent, despite a lack of evidence that it can cure. The horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in human fingernails.

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