A White Rhino and her calf walk in the dusk light in Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa's North West Province April 19, 2012. Elephant and rhino poaching is surging, conservationists say, an illegal piece of Asia's scramble for African resources, driven by the growing purchasing power of the region's newly affluent classes. In South Africa, nearly two rhinos a day are being killed to meet demand for the animal's horn, which is worth more than its weight in gold. Picture taken April 19, 2012. To match Feature AFRICA-POACHING/ REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT ANIMALS)

Cape Town - South African rhinos are “up against the wall” with a massive 1 004 killed last year to supply the illegal rhino horn trade.

This represents a 1 294 percentage increase in the number of rhinos poached here in the last six years. In 2008, just 72 were killed by poachers, and before that figures were around 20 rhino poaching deaths a year. Last year it was almost three a day.

Experts say the leap from 668 rhinos killed in 2012 to 1 004 in 2013 is the result of organised transnational criminal networks which smuggle the horn to Asia where it is used as a status symbol by the middle classes, mainly in Vietnam.

Jo Shaw, rhino programme manager for the local branch of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), said the rocketing of the number of rhinos killed brought our rhino even closer to the tipping point where deaths outnumbered births.

“The bottom line is South Africa’s rhinos are up against the wall,” Shaw said.

Shaw said there was growing evidence of links between criminal gangs and other forms of organised crime, including the trafficking of drugs and weapons.

“These criminal networks are threatening our national security and damaging our economy by frightening away tourists. Rhino poaching and rhino horn trafficking are not simply environmental issues. They represent threats to the very fabric of our society,” Shaw said.

Research by WWF last year revealed that the profile of the typical person driving the slaughter by buying rhino horn was a 48-year-old businessman in Vietnam, married with grown-up children, who wanted to be seen as a leader and believed using rhino horn was a badge of wealth, power and social status. The demand by middle to upper income groups is the biggest driver of the rhino horn poaching crisis in South Africa.

Shaw said there were a number of steps South Africa must take: the first was to put in place a national permitting system. Another was to make more arrests “higher up the trade chain” to disrupt the criminal networks.

In December 2012 South Africa signed a memorandum of agreement with Vietnam and developed a joint action plan. South Africa signed a similar one with China last year and is developing others with Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Hong Kong.

In March the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) singled out certain countries heavily implicated in rhino trade which could be subjected to sanctions if certain action was not taken. Vietnam has to report to Cites by the end of the month showing its progress in seizures, arrests and convictions for rhino horn trafficking and use.

Mozambique must show Cites it had enacted legislation with deterrent penalties to combat rhino poaching and trafficking. Shaw said the Mozambique border with Kruger National Park was a particular concern because poachers regularly crossed into Kruger to poach rhinos and the horns could be “transported to Asia in a matter of hours”.

Next month the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade will “seek commitments from key priority governments to combat the growing global threat posed by illegal wildlife trade”.

Shaw said the summit aimed to produce a declaration of political commitment to improve law enforcement, reduce demand for illegal wildlife products and support the development of alternative livelihoods. “International agreements like these have to translate into meaningful action on the ground.” - Cape Times