The price of a single rhino horn has reached half a million dollars and, with its value per kilo exceeding that of cocaine, poaching of the animals has reached unprecedented heights. Yesterday, the world's wildlife trade watchdog said that the smuggling of the horns should be punished with the same severity as drug running.
Poaching is killing many hundreds of rhinos a year, with 174 slaughtered illegally between January and June this year in South Africa alone – exceeding the rate of kills for the previous year.
The dramatic surge in rhino poaching is being fuelled by demand from Asia and soaring prices, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) said. More resources are urgently needed with almost half of the 175 countries in the convention not having adequate legislation to penalise poachers, it added.
John Scanlon, Cites secretary-general, said: "We are trying to find new ways of putting poachers out of business because the traditional enforcement is not effective. It's the same as the drugs trade and other types of organised crime: when you arrest one poacher, there are 10 ready to take the position. It is a very lucrative activity, and the risk of law enforcement and penalties are not as much of a deterrent as they are for drug trafficking. [The price of rhino horn] is higher than that of cocaine now."
Britain confirmed last night it has secured international agreement to clamp down on the illegal trade in rhino horn. The UK will lead a global steering group to dispel the myths around rhino horn cures. There have also been calls for debate on what to do with stockpiles of rhino horn, and whether they might be used to help alleviate the extreme pressures being caused by demand. South Africa, which has more rhinos than any other African country, is thought to be the source of most of the illegal horns.
"In South Africa now, they are really giving priority to this problem. They created a national joint security committee which is conducting Operation Rhino," Mr Scanlon said.
A single rhino horn is worth $500,000 (£303,000), with a kilo fetching $50,000, which explains the huge surge in illegal poaching, Cites said. Between January and 15 June, 174 rhinos were killed illegally in South Africa, a faster rate than the 333 killed for the whole of 2010. Some 121 animals were killed in the Kruger National Park (KNP), a protected rhino conservation area. There have been 122 arrests of suspected rhino poachers in South Africa this year, with 60 arrested in the KNP.
Mr Scanlon added: "The KNP is the protected area that has suffered the most losses. Some of the poachers have come over the border with Mozambique. And at least one kingpin from Thailand has recently been arrested in South Africa.
"We have said for a while that in certain countries in Asia, such as Vietnam, it is believed that this is a cure for cancer. But this does not necessarily explain why prices are rocketing now. We think it may be connected to the financial crisis and people may be buying it alongside gold as a safe commodity."
The latest International Union for Conservation of Nature statistics show that South Africa currently has 18,780 white and 1,906 black rhinos.
Cites has called for stiffer penalties for poachers, saying they should face sanctions comparable to drug dealers. Oeystein Stoerkersen, who chairs a Cites committee, said: "If you are caught with a kilo of rhino horn, you are likely to get away with it. We need to step up the penal code; the punishment for poaching needs to be much harsher."