The number of rhinos killed in South Africa for their horns soared to more than 1,000 last year, a 50 per cent jump on 2012 and up from just 13 in 2007.
South Africa’s environment agency said 1,004 animals were killed in 2013, mostly in Kruger national park – showing the rapid growth in poaching that threatens to wipe out the country’s entire population of white and black rhinos.
Rhino poaching is being fuelled by growing demand from Vietnam and China, where the horns are believed to have medicinal properties.
Organised criminals are increasingly choosing poaching because it offers high rewards with little risk as jail sentences are rare.
Before the killing spree, white rhino numbers had staged a major comeback, rising from just 100 at the end of the 19th century to about 20,000 today.
“The experts tell me we are close to the tipping point,” said Tom Milliken from Traffic International, the wildlife trade monitoring group.
Next month, the heads of state and foreign ministers from around 50 countries are set to attend the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade.
The Independent has been working in partnership with the charity Space for Giants to raise money to combat elephant poaching in Africa. It will continue to do so, but it will also focus increasingly on next month’s wildlife summit.