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A newly born White Rhinoceros walks with it's mother in the Kruger National Park on July 7, 2013 in Lower Sabie, South Africa.

A newly born white rhinoceros walks with it's mother in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAN KITWOOD, GETTY  

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic

Published January 17, 2014

For South Africa's white rhinos, 2013 was perhaps the worst year in modern history.

One thousand and four animals were killed by poachers, the highest since record keeping began in the early 1900s, according to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs.

That's also 1.5 times as high as 2012, when 668 white rhinos were slaughtered for their horns, which are highly coveted as luxury items in parts of Asia. (Related: "Why African Rhinos Are Facing a Crisis.")

"Ultimately that should be the solution to the rhino-poaching crisis." (Also see "Rhino Hunt Permit Auction Sets Off Conservation Debate.")

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

Such escalated poaching has pushed the southern white rhino to near threatened status, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and soon poaching rates will exceed the number of new rhinos born, said Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC, a wildlife-trade monitoring network.

"Things really aren't getting better, despite the [seven] years this crisis has been going on," Thomas said. (From our blog: "South African Rhino Poaching Hits New High [2013].")

"It really does call for some major action."

We talked to Thomas about the main takeaways from the report.

Why is this happening?

For one, there's new evidence that poachers are using neighboring Mozambique as an operational base, both for entering South Africa to kill the animals and for smuggling out their horns, Thomas said. (See a map of the international illegal trade in rhinos.)

The poachers aren't just local, either: They're often part of powerful, organized crime networks that have been linked to other illegal activities, such as drugs, weapons, and human trafficking, worldwide.

The criminals sell the horns in markets in Vietnam and China, where they are used by the growing wealthy class as health tonics and status symbols.

Likewise, demand for the horns is only increasing.

What needs to be done next?

First, Mozambique needs to step up its penalties for wildlife crime, where it's now only a misdemeanor. (Read "Rhino Wars" in National Geographic magazine.)

What's more, there needs to be better enforcement action on the ground, including more rangers and other initiatives such as detection dogs, which can sniff out endangered species in border crossings and airports.

Perhaps the most important is a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species-led effort to curtail demand of rhino horn in Vietnam, Thomas said.

That means not only raising awareness through education of the impact on rhinos but also changing attitudes around rhino horns so that it "becomes uncool and no longer a fashionable item," he said.

Can that really work?

There is historical evidence that you can change attitudes toward certain products, Thomas said.

Take elephant ivory in Japan: It was once a luxury item, but thanks in part to widespread awareness of elephant poaching, it's now no longer popular in the country.

Thomas believes that for rhinos, "eventually we will see that change—but it has got to happen sooner rather than later."

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

15 comments
Louise Dukes
Louise Dukes

It's ridiculous. Don't people realize that rhino horn is made of keratin? People who consume it for 'health' reasons might as well just be biting their finger nails.

Matthew Black
Matthew Black

Old solutions aren't working, lets get creative:


Put an explosive inside a rhino horn on a timer, sell it to some Asian guy. Boom!


Make some poisonous tonics saying they are made out of rhino horn, put them on the Vietnamese market, literally kill the demand.

Make up some fake research that suggests that Rhino horns make your penis smaller, Asians won't go near them.


Put tracking devices into Rhino horns, sell them, track the buyers, kill'em.

Dorothy Bredle
Dorothy Bredle

Does everybody who uses the medicine understand where it originates and the misery and loss it causes?   If you use 'Chinese'  remedies, or others like them, be sure you know what is in the  remedy.

Gintaras Pobedinskas
Gintaras Pobedinskas

There should be installed heart beat monitors on each rhino with GPS, as soon as heart stops, rangers should cover in masks and head to the location, and ... kill every poacher (as earth is already overpopulated) leave one alive to spread the news and to create the legend. after the legend is spread, leave no one alive, then there will be no poachers as you have 100% chance of dying, unless there's too much poachers and they act on same time and you have too little rangers. :)

William Cody
William Cody

Either allow Rhino horn farmers to supply the market, or poison confiscated horns and put them on the market, (and naturally alert potential customer they may die if they consume rhino horn products), to end the demand, or just allow the species to go extinct.

Ali Berrada
Ali Berrada

its nice thing to poaching rhinos , i like regrouping rhino's horns

Tom Petres
Tom Petres

<7,000,000,000 people  >7,000 Rhinos.  I know!  Death penalty for poaching, or being in possession of rhino horn!  Doesn't sound unreasonable to me at all.

Sam H.
Sam H.

One of many cultural things I don't see any reason beyond ego behind, in Asia.

Gintaras Pobedinskas
Gintaras Pobedinskas

but we can crowdfund rangers and create big company for protection of animals not only rhinos, there is a lot of people in first world who could save rhinos becouse ther's less of those who want them dead and want their horns, evreyone can donate from $1 and up, we are strong and have bigger purchase power!

Gintaras Pobedinskas
Gintaras Pobedinskas

@William Cody I think it would be difficult to contaminate rhino horn as it is solid bone, maybe make it radioactive? contaminate with uranium or polonium, but then you will have bad suplier name and no one will buy from you :)

Gintaras Pobedinskas
Gintaras Pobedinskas

@Tom Petresdeath by feeding them to the lions hyenas or other wild animals :D

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@Sam H. Maybe, but Africans are at least as culpable. Bad luck for the Rhinos that their range is in five of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Matthew Black
Matthew Black

@Gintaras Pobedinskas@William Cody 

You can hide the origin quite easily. In wars like in Syria ammo often gets "spiked" with high explosive instead of gun powder. Its hard to track down who spiked the ammo, especially in unsophisticated supply chains like those used in wars, and probably in smuggling rings too.

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