It's not a good time to be a wild rhinoceros.

Poachers killed an unprecedented 1,004 rhinos across South Africa in 2013, officials announced last week, a 50 percent spike from the previous high of 668 set in 2012. The new record also marks a 4,463 percent increase in rhino poaching over the past decade.

This news comes from South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs, which is caught in an increasingly brutal war with poachers from around the world. Unlike "subsistence poaching" of the past — in which local hunters illegally killed small numbers of rhinos — today's poachers typically hail from organized crime syndicates based in Asia, travel by helicopter and carry silenced weapons with night-vision scopes to kill rhinos in bulk.

The recent surge in rhino poaching is driven largely by demand in Asia, especially China and Vietnam, where rhino horn is falsely thought to have medicinal qualities. Widely sold in powdered form, it's touted as a cure for everything from headaches and snakebites to fever and cancer. In reality, however, it's made almost entirely of keratin — the same mundane material that makes up human hair and fingernails. According to CT scans, the structure of rhino horn is similar to horse hooves and turtle beaks.

Nonetheless, it's often treated as a commodity more valuable than gold. And since many poachers now operate as paramilitary units, park rangers are being forced to serve as soldiers. On top of the 343 poachers arrested in South Africa last year, at least 48 were killed in gun battles, according to government data and the advocacy group Stop Rhino Poaching. Authorities arrested 267 poachers in 2012, 232 in 2011 and 165 in 2010.

As with other recent military conflicts, the rhino wars have also taken a high-tech turn. Rangers and conservation groups are experimenting with an array of novel anti-poaching tactics, like implanting GPS microchips into live rhinos' horns, lacing the keratin with toxic chemicals and deploying unmanned surveillance drones over poaching hotspots. But a more thorough solution will likely need to address the demand, experts say, or at least mobilize more support in countries affected by poaching.

rhino poaching

A landowner poses next to a sign warning of anti-poaching measures at his private game reserve near Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Christophe Beaudufe/AFP/Getty Images)

While South Africa has become a poaching hub in recent years, the problem is also prevalent in other African and Asian countries with remnant rhino populations, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Every single rhino is under threat of poaching at the moment," Barney Long of the World Wildlife Fund said in a statement last year. "This slaughter of rhinos is out of control and threatens to undermine decades of conservation work and the livelihoods of those who depend on them."

Beyond fighting poachers directly, officials in South Africa are trying to raise awareness by framing the problem as a threat to the country's economy and national security. During a parade in September for World Rhino Day, environment minister Edna Molewa warned supporters of the many dangers posed by rhino poachers.

"Because of the increase in rhino poaching since 2008, rhinos have been at the center of the world's attention," she said. "This is because losing a rhino not only disturbs the ecological balance, but also harms the South African economy through the resulting harm to the tourism industry as a job creator, and poses a security threat as international poaching syndicates cross illegally into South Africa to rob this precious animal of its horn."

In a sign of how far the problem reaches, the U.S. also recently announced a crackdown on rhino poachers. On Sept. 10, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted Endangered Species Act protection to white rhinos, the last surviving species to be protected under American law. "As both a transit point and consumer destination for illegal rhino horn products, the United States plays a vital role in curbing poaching and wildlife trafficking," FWS director Dan Ashe said in a statement. "Along with extending protection to the southern white rhino, we're evaluating additional regulatory and policy options in an effort to strengthen our ability to investigate and prosecute poachers and traffickers."

There is still hope, conservationists say, if rhino poaching can be contained before it becomes too economically established. The number of poached rhinos in South Africa may have risen by more than 4,400 percent in the past decade, but that means there's still a relatively recent memory of a time when almost no one relied on rhino horns for money.

"The future for rhinos need not be bleak," Long says, "if the world can rally to stop the poaching, break the trade chains and end the demand for rhino horns."


Editor's Note: This story has been updated since it was first published on Sept. 24, 2013. At that time, the number of rhinos poached in South Africa had just broken the previous annual record of 668. Poachers went on to kill more than 300 rhinos over the next three months, according to South African officials, pushing the 2013 death toll to 1,004.

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