The slaughter of rhinos driven by the soaring illegal trade in their horns continues at a record pace with 245 killed in South Africa since January, authorities said on June 12.

The country's northeast and largest of game reserves, the Kruger National Park has been the hardest hit, losing 60 percent of the national toll, or 147 rhinos, to poachers, the Department of Environmental Affairs said in a statement.

With roughly 20,000 animals South Africa is home to between 70 and 80 percent of the world's rhino population, increasingly being targeted by poachers despite heightened security.

Last year poachers killed 448 animals compared to 333 in 2010. In 2007 only 13 animals fell prey to illegal hunters.

The animals' distinctive horns are hacked off to be smuggled to the lucrative Asian black market, where the fingernail-like substance is falsely believed to have powerful healing properties.

On the black market, the horns fetch almost 50,000 euros ($62,700), or the same price as an ounce of gold, according to several experts.

Efforts to curb the killings include the deployment of soldiers in the Kruger Park and specialist investigators.

Police have arrested 161 suspects, including 138 poachers, since the start of the year, the ministry said.

Copyright 2012 AFP Global Edition