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A rhino is dehorned by a zoo veterinary surgeon in its enclosure at Dvur Kralove Zoo as a safety measure to reduce the risk of potential poaching attack, Czech Republic, March 20, 2017. Picture taken March 20, 2017. Courtesy of Dvur Kralove Zoo/Simona Jirickova/Handout via REUTERS

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By Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) - A Czech zoo has started sawing off the horns of its 21 rhinos to protect them from poaching after the killing of a rhinoceros in France earlier this month.

The zoo in Dvur Kralove, some 150 km (90 miles) north-east of Prague, keeps 17 black rhinos and four southern white ones, the largest group in Europe.

"The decision to remove rhino horns was not made easily at all," Premysl Rabas, the zoo's head, said in a statement.

"However the risk that the rhinos currently face not only in the wild but even in zoos is too high, and the safety of the animals is our first concern. A dehorned rhino is definitely a better option than a dead rhino."

The first rhino to go under the chainsaw on Monday was Pamir, a southern white rhino male, and others will lose their horns in the near future.

The zoo said the rhinos are anaesthetised but the procedure itself is not painful. The horns gradually grow back.

Global trade in rhino horn is banned by a United Nations convention. But demand for the horn is strong in newly-affluent Asian countries such as Vietnam, where it is prized as an ingredient in traditional medicines, and African authorities have struggled to counter rampant poaching.

Poachers broke into a French zoo on March 7 and killed a white rhinoceros for its horn, the first such case in Europe.

Thoiry zoo said in a statement that a kilogram (2.2 lb) of rhino horn fetched 51,000 euros ($53,900) on the black market in 2015.

On March 12 Belgium's Pairi Daiza zoo said that it too will take the same route with its four rhinos.

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Vin Shahrestani)

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