Rhinoceros poaching in South Africa hit an all-time high in 2010, with 333 animals slain for their valuable horns. That's nearly triple the 122 rhinos killed in the country in 2009.
Most of the poached rhinos were southern white rhinoceri (Ceratotherium simum simum). The most prolific type of rhino, it is considered a near-threatened species. But 10 critically endangered black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) were also among the dead.
The killing hasn't abated with the new year. As of January 11 five more rhinos had already been killed.
Most of the deaths in the past year were in Kruger National Park, which lost 146 rhinos due to poaching.
Stopping poaching has become increasingly difficult as the money fetched by rhino horns on the black market makes it possible for gangs to use high-tech methods to commit their crimes. Poachers often use helicopters to fly into national parks under the cover of darkness. They carry night-vision goggles and high-powered rifles to track and take down their prey, then land, hack off the rhinos' horns, and fly out again before park rangers can apprehend them. According to TRAFFIC International, the wildlife trade monitoring group, a single rhino horn can fetch $70,000 or more for its use in traditional Asian medicine.
"The criminal syndicates operating in South Africa are highly organized and use advanced technologies. They are very well coordinated," Joseph Okori, African rhino program manager for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said in a prepared statement. "This is not typical poaching."
South Africa's park rangers aren't completely helpless. So far this year authorities have shot and killed five suspected poachers and arrested seven more, according to a report from Reuters.
"More successful convictions, backed up by appropriately daunting penalties will significantly demonstrate the South African government's commitment to preventing the clouding of the country's excellent rhino conservation track record that it has built up over the past several decades," said Morné duPlessis, CEO of WWF South Africa.
But South Africa can't do this job alone. Poachers often enter the country and its Kruger National Park through bordering nations—Zimbabwe and Mozambique—where enforcement is lax. A South African nongovernmental organizaton, the Coalition for the Survival of Endangered Species, hopes to organize a multinational conference to discuss rhino conservation this June.
Photo: Southern white rhinoceros in Kruger National Park, via Wikipedia