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CAPE TOWN – (AFP) – Poachers have slaughtered 455 rhinos in South Africa so far this year, already surpassing the record annual tally for 2011, the government said Tuesday.
“The latest rhino poaching statistics indicate that a total of 455 rhinos have been lost to illegal killings since the beginning of this year,” the department of environmental affairs said in a statement.
South Africa has seen a dizzying spike in the pace of rhino slaughters fuelled by the lucrative Asian black market trade in rhino horn.
Last year, a total of 448 rhinos were poached, up from 333 in 2010 and just 13 in 2007, with more than half of the animals killed so far this year in the world-renowned Kruger National Park. The reserve has lost 272, compared with 252 last year.
“We are clearly losing the war and we simply cannot carry on the way we are doing more of the same,” said Pelham Jones of South Africa Private Rhino Owners Association, who points to a possible year-end toll of close to 600.
Environmentalists fear the bloodshed could still flare at year end with the months of November and December traditionally showing spikes in the kill rates.
“There was always a realisation that there has been an increase and that the rate of poaching has been increased year on year,” Kirsty Brebner, rhino project manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust.
“But I think that the rate at which it is increasing has come as a major shock.
“We’re sitting at 455 with the two worst months to go and if you consider the growth rate (of the rhino population) is six percent a year, we’re getting close to tipping point. That means when your deaths exceed your births, so the species starts to go into decline.”
South Africa is home to the world’s biggest rhino populations of more than 18,000 white rhino and around 1,600 critically endangered black rhino.
Current birth rates are still higher than the poaching take-off but Brebner warned that breeding females were largely being targeted and the impact of this has yet to be quantified.
The South African authorities have arrested 207 people this year, including 179 poachers, and have beefed up security measures such as sending soldiers into Kruger and working for joint action with destination country Vietnam.
Anti-poaching drives have drummed up millions of rands in massive fund-raising initiatives, sponsoring efforts from sniffer dogs to a rhino DNA data base project. Even traditional healers and churches have stepped into the fight.
Private game farmers have also stepped up security with estimates of monthly anti-poaching costs ranging from 20,000 rands to up to 200,000 rands ($22,900, 17,600 euros).
But the efforts have failed to curb the sophisticated criminal syndicates driving the bloodshed, and Brebner said there were suggestions that traditional human traffickers and drug smugglers were moving into wildlife.
WWF South Africa’s rhino coordinator Jo Shaw said: “Today is a notable day that it’s become official, sadly the writing has been on the wall”.
The animals’ distinctive horns are hacked off to be smuggled to the Asian black market, where the fingernail-like substance is falsely believed to have powerful healing properties.
“I think ultimately we have to accept that this isn’t a problem that can be solved within our borders,” said Shaw.
“The government needs to be putting pressure on consumer nations like Vietnam and transit countries such as Mozambique to get them to step up to the plate.”
The private owners network, which represents the majority of the 400 independent game farms housing 30 percent of the country’s animals, believes that the horn trade should be legalised to stamp out the illegal hunts.
The dispersal of the country’s rhinos — with Kruger alone the size of Israel — makes them highly vulnerable and impossible to protect from the massive demand for horns, said Pelham.
“We’re saying if we wish to save our rhino, the only way to do so is going to be to allow for controlled trade,” he told AFP.
A government-led stakeholder engagement on anti-poaching measures, including probing a legalised rhino horn trade, is due to be wrapped up later this month.