JOHANNESBURG A group of animal conservationists in South Africa accidentally killed a rhinoceros they were attempting to make safe from poachers in a botched public relations event.
Spencer the rhino went into convulsions and died after he was shot with a tranquiliser dart in front of a crush of TV cameras and photographers who had been invited to document an operation to insert a poison capsule into his horn.
Conservationists from the Rhino Rescue Project said sedating rhinos with darts was a tricky business that sometimes went awry and rejected suggestions that the poison capsule had caused Spencer's death.
"The rhino had an unfortunate reaction to the anaesthesia," Rhino Rescue Project spokeswoman Lorinda Hern said. "Every time you dart a rhino, you take a risk that the rhino might not wake up and unfortunately today was one of those days."
Conservation groups insert poison capsules into the horns of rhinos, which release poison into the horn when it is removed from the animal and are meant to render the horn value-less for hunters seeking to sell it on for use in traditional medicine.
Conservation groups have inserted poison into the horns of rhinos or removed their horns in an effort to deter poachers. Both procedures require rhinos to be sedated.
A record 448 rhinos were killed by poachers last year in South Africa, home to the greatest number of the animals. Rising demand in Asia for their horns has led to an increase in illegal hunting.
A decade ago South Africa, with more than 20,000 rhinos, was losing about 15 animals a year to poachers. But poaching has increased dramatically since about 2007 as the spread of wealth in places like Vietnam and Thailand has enabled more people to buy rhino horn, which scientists say has no real medicinal uses.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Reuters Television, editing by Paul Casciato)