The world’s largest surviving population of white rhinos suffered its heaviest toll on record last year when poachers killed more than 1,000 of the threatened animals to feed an international market for trinkets and potions made from their horns.
The South African Department of Environmental Affairs reported Friday that it had counted 1,004 rhinos killed by poachers in 2013, mostly in Kruger National Park, along the porous border with Mozambique.
It was the worst year for rhinoceros poaching since the government began tracking the illegal hunting in the early 1900s, National Geographic reported.
South Africa is home to more than 20,000 white rhinos, about 80 percent of the world’s population of the iconic beasts that numbered 500,000 a century ago, conservation organizations report.
Soaring demand for rhino horn from Asian countries, particularly China and Vietnam, is driving up prices for the slain animals’ signature feature, nurturing an illegal poaching network operating out of Mozambique, explained Tom Milliken, rhinoceros expert with the global wildlife trade monitoring organization TRAFFIC.
“South Africa and Mozambique must decisively up their game if they hope to stop this blatant robbery of southern Africa’s natural heritage,” Milliken said, calling on authorities to make 2014 “the turning point where the world, collectively, says ‘enough is enough’ and brings these criminal networks down.”
In its quest to protect rhinos from poachers, the South African government has signed agreements with China and Vietnam to better coordinate their tracking and enforcement efforts. Similar agreements are in the works with Mozambique, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Hong Kong, TRAFFIC said on its website.
Last year’s white rhino toll was nearly 50 percent higher than in 2012, when 668 of the animals were slaughtered for their horns. Interception and detention of poachers was up commensurately, with 343 alleged poachers and traffickers arrested in 2013, an increase from 267 the previous year, according to the report from Pretoria.