Johannesburg - South Africa is heading for a new world record – and it’s nothing to be proud of.

Rhino experts warned on Monday that if the current rate of poaching continued until December, poachers were likely to set a new world record of almost 1 000 rhino killings in South Africa in a single year.

The expectation is based on the fact that at least 446 rhino have been killed in the first six months of the year.

This estimate of between 900 to 1 000 killings (equivalent to about 10 percent of the country’s remaining rhino population in the space of just 12 months) would eclipse all previous statistics since the white rhino was driven to the brink of extinction more than a century ago.

From a tiny nucleus of fewer than 50 southern white rhinos in 1903, which survived only in Umfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, the combined South African population of white and black rhino had multiplied to a healthy level of nearly 20 000 in 2010.

An analysis of rhino poaching statistics over the past 13 years shows that on average, fewer than 20 rhino were poached every year in the eight-year period after 2000.

Then it spiked suddenly five years ago, with 80 killings during 2008 and has soared rapidly since then, peaking at 668 rhinos last year.

Pietermaritzburg-based Richard Emslie, a rhino specialist, said he would not be surprised to see the final death count for this year climbing to 900 or 1 000.

“Whichever way you look at it, it’s not good news. This level of poaching is just not sustainable,” said Emslie, who is a member of the African Rhinos Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Over the past two-and-half years, more than 60 percent of the rhino killings have been in the Kruger National Park, with the majority of poachers crossing into the park from Mozambique.

Amid concern by local conservationists that Mozambican authorities are sheltering poachers or doing very little to prevent their nationals plundering horns illegally in a neighbouring country, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa met Mozambican Tourism Minister Carvalho Muaria in Maputo to discuss the crisis last month.

No detailed statements have been issued on the outcome of the talks, although SA National Parks confirmed last week that three suspected poachers had been arrested inside Mozambique following a joint operation involving rangers from both countries.

Emslie said the apparent resumption of hot-pursuit operations into Mozambique was a welcome signal, but more commitment was needed to change the law in Mozambique, where rhino poaching was still treated as a minor misdemeanour rather than a criminal offence.

“Hopefully we will see some more progress in changing the legal regime, with stricter prosecution and criminal penalties for poachers.”

South Africa protects about 93 percent of the remaining white rhino population in Africa (20 165 animals) and nearly 83 percent of the continent’s combined population of black and white rhinos (estimated at 25 045 animals in 2010 throughout the continent).

Meanwhile, three suspected rhino poachers were due to appear in the Mtubatuba Magistrate’s Court after allegedly killing a white rhino cow on Saturday afternoon in the iSimangaliso World Heritage Park.

The latest killing brings the KZN provincial death toll to 41 rhinos this year.

According to Jeff Zikhali, a spokesman for the provincial Department of Environmental Affairs, two of the suspects are South Africans and the third Mozambican.

Zikhali said the poachers had also been linked to a spate of rhino killings in the world heritage park last month.

Anybody with information on poaching or with anonymous tip-offs can phone 0800 205 005, 0860 010 111 or the Crime-Line on 32211. - The Star

1 In a report on rhino poaching, we reported that, based on the current rate of poaching somewhere between 900 and 1 000 rhinos were likely to be killed during 2013, and that this projection was equivalent to about 10 percent of the country’s remaining rhino population. In fact, this projection is closer to |5 percent of the remaining estimated population. The error is regretted. l The Mercury welcomes comments and suggestions, or complaints about errors that warrant correction. These can be e-mailed to [email protected]