With over a month still to go, 2013 has been a record-breaking year for illegal rhino deaths. New figures reveal that 31 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa in one week alone.
According to official figures from the South African government, as of Wednesday, 891 have been killed this year. The previous 12-month record was 668 in 2012.
Despite an international ban on the trade, the number of rhinos poached for their horn in South Africa has been increasing year on year. In 2007, only 13 were killed.
It is a lucrative business, with crushed rhino horn worth more than its weight in gold on the black market. Conservation groups have even suggested that the illegal trade may have financed Al Shabaab, the terrorist organisation behind the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.
The growth is being driven largely by demand in Asian consumer countries, particularly Vietnam. A survey conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City found that the typical rhino horn buyers are upper-middle class citizens, often businessmen, celebrities or government officials.
“Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and it seems that rhino horn is a high priority for newly affluent Vietnamese”, says Katherine Ellis of Save the Rhino.
“Although the original reasons for using rhino horn are linked to its believed medicinal properties, there is a current trend towards using rhino horn to enhance social standing amongst peers.
“Other new uses for rhino horn include use as a miracle cure for cancer and a hangover cure, users believe rhino horn has ‘detoxifying purposes’ and can cure a range of serious illnesses.”
NGOs are currently working to reduce this demand for the illegal product. Education for Nature Vietnam has recently placed a series of banners in Vietnamese car showrooms with the message, “You are a smart consumer for saying “No” to rhino horn”, and has been encouraging the public to report those involved in the trade to the authorities.
Meanwhile, WWF and Traffic have developed a series of advertisements telling potential buyers that rhino horn is made of keratin, the same substance that makes up human nails, in an effort to dispel the myths that surround it. Save the Rhino also say they are hoping to undertake such a behaviour-change programme.
Save the Rhino is now also concerned that buyers may be emerging in China. Some 2.58kg of rhino horns, worth over $106,000 (£64,804), were recently seized in Anhui province. Both the sellers and the buyers were arrested.
Experts have noted that in recent years, the number of poaching incidents in South Africa has spiked in the months leading up to Christmas and the Chinese New Year. Along with rising rates in South Africa, the past month has seen poaching incidents in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Namibia.
“With one rhino killed every 5.4 hours, it will not be long before rhinos reach the tipping point, when overall deaths overtake births, and black and white rhino numbers begin to decline”, Ellis warns.
“This threatens to undo the conservation work and hard-won gains of the last two decades.”
You can donate to support the work of Save the Rhino by visiting www.savetherhino.org.