More than 80 critically endangered black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) have been poached for their horns in Zimbabwe in the past 12 months, double the number killed in the previous year, a situation that the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) has now decided to disucss at its next meeting. Rhino horns are highly valued in Asian traditional medicine, and are used to make ceremonial dagger handles in the Middle East. Zimbabwe's poor economy and years of political upheaval make poaching a very lucrative, and easy, operation.

Rhinos "will be on the agenda of the CITES Standing Committee, which meets in Geneva in early July," says John M. Sellar, CITES chief enforcement officer.

Several media reports, such as this one from China's Xinhua news agency, have claimed that CITES plans to censure Zimbabwe for its rhino deaths, but Sellar says "we have not communicated any intention to Zimbabwe to instigate the Convention's compliance procedures."

Still, the increase in rhino deaths -- at least 18 rhinos have been found dead so far in 2009 -- has inspired Zimbabwe's Department of National Parks and Wildlife to invite the nation's Army to help defend rhinos from well-armed poachers. It is hoped that the poaching rate can be stopped or slowed by putting some rhinos under 24-hour armed guard, according to Discovery News.

Not all poached rhinos are killed. Some are drugged, and their horns are hacked off while the animals are asleep. The Zimbabwe Times has a particularly gruesome photo of one such rhino. According to the paper, the country's National Parks department tried to preemptively de-horn rhinos to make them less attractive to poachers, but "this policy has been a failure as poachers continued to kill the de-horned animals." Dehorning, a process which requires a veterinarian and must be repeated every few years as horns grow back, doesn't hurt rhinos, but can leave them more vulnerable to predators, according to a research published in the December 1994 issue of the journal Conservation Biology.

Even with the Army's assistance, protecting rhinos in an economically devastated country like Zimbabwe is going to be difficult. "The main thing we need to protect rhinos is money so if anyone can help us with donations, that would really help," says Johnny Rodrigues, chair of the independent Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.

Zimbabwe's black rhinos were almost wiped out by the last wave of poaching in the 1980s, when just 42 rhinos remained alive in the country. Populations rose to 830 in 2007, but dropped down again to 740 at the end of 2008, according to the Associated Press. Worldwide, black rhino populations are estimated at 3,600.

Image: Black rhino, via Wikipedia