More than 1 000 rhinos killed in 2013

More than 1 000 rhinos were killed in South Africa last year at a record-breaking rate that could wipe out the country's entire population of white and black rhinos in a little over two decades. The environment ministry said 1 004 animals were killed in 2013, mostly in poaching hotspot Kruger national park, as the poaching crisis escalated.

The number is a big increase on the 668 killed in 2012, which was in itself a record year, up from just 13 in 2007. Appetite for rhino horn from Asia, in particular Vietnam, has driven the killing in South Africa, which ministers have warned in turn threatens the country's tourism sector. Demand is so high that a kilogram of rhino horn is now worth more than gold or cocaine.

The UK prime minister, David Cameron, is hosting a summit in London next month in a bid to tackle the trade, which has also seen tens of thousands of elephants killed in Africa annually in recent years. Conservationists said action must be taken now.

Tom Milliken, rhino expert at wildlife trade monitors Traffic, said: "South Africa and Mozambique [a transit hub for wildlife products leaving Africa] must decisively up their game if they hope to stop this blatant robbery of southern Africa's natural heritage. 2014 must mark the turning point where the world, collectively says 'enough is enough' and brings these criminal networks down." 

Damage to economy

Governments and NGOs have argued in recent years that the illegal wildlife trade has become a national security issue, rather than just an environmental one. The channelling of funds from poaching to terrorist groups has led the US intelligence community to begin tracking often heavily-armed poachers. "Rhino horn trafficking and consumption are not simply environmental issues, they represent threats to the very fabric of society," said Miliken. Dr Jo Shaw, rhino programme manager for WWF-South Africa, said: "These criminal networks are threatening our national security and damaging our economy by frightening away tourists."

South Africa said it increased the number of arrests of poachers from 267 in 2012, to 343 in 2013, though the number represents a decrease in the percentage of rhinos killed in total. The crisis shows little sign of stopping – the South African government said 37 rhino have already been poached in 2014. There are around 18 000 white and 4 000 black rhinos in the country.

© Guardian News and Media 2014

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