The mass slaughter of rhinos has increased for the sixth year in a row, according to grim new figures from international researchers.
At least 1,338 of the iconic animals were killed for their horns in Africa last year. This is the greatest loss in a single year since an intense wave of poaching began recently.
Since 2008, as many as 5,940 rhinos have been killed although scientists fear that could be an underestimate.
The findings were compiled by researchers from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The losses come despite a drive to fight poaching gangs by strengthening patrols, harnessing satellite technology and boosting intelligence-gathering.
The IUCN blames continuing demand from South East Asia – where rhino horn is wrongly believed to have medicinal properties – fed by increasingly sophisticated international crime networks.
Officials say that amid the killings there are some helpful developments. Overall, the rate of increase in poaching has fallen slightly and in South Africa, home to the greatest number of rhinos, the numbers killed in a single year fell slightly for the first time since 2008. South Africa has managed to reduce the number of rhinos slaughtered from 1,215 in 2014 to 1,175 last year.
But success in one area can lead to further poaching elsewhere and while South Africa can point to a slightly improved picture, other countries have seen sharp increases in losses. According to the new data, the number of rhinos killed in Namibia has quadrupled in just the last two years while losses in Zimbabwe doubled over the same period.
After a previous collapse in rhino numbers during the 1960s, a concerted effort which was backed by determined governments and generous funding saw populations restored but this current crisis is seen as more serious and therefore harder to tackle because of the sheer aggression and growing sophistication of the poaching gangs, fuelled by the high price for rhino horn on the black market. Every new technological advance designed to help the conservation effort – including drones, radios and intelligence-gathering – is matched by the poachers.
With the global total of rhinos now only in the region of 25,000, there will be renewed attention on ways to combat rhino horn trade at the next CITES meeting in Johannesburg in September.