CAPE TOWN - With rhino poaching threatening to spiral out of control, the South African Police Service (SAPS) has decided to allow game farmers licences for semi-automatic weapons.

So far this year 287 rhinos have been killed for their horns and the figure will top 400 if the poaching continues at the present rate. In the same period 20 suspected poachers have been killed in clashes with authorities in what is becoming a low-level war.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said yesterday, in reply to a question from Democratic Alliance chief whip Ian Davidson, that the SAPS "is assisting the private owners of rhino populations to obtain licences for semi-automatic rifles". Normally ordinary citizens cannot get a licence for such weapons, unless they can demonstrate that ordinary firearms are inadequate for their circumstances.

Mr Mthethwa said the SAPS had made the curbing of rhino poaching a priority and it was being handled by the Hawks.

"Task teams to investigate these incidents (of poaching) were established in each province. Close working relationships with the Department of Environmental Affairs is being realised," he said .

"Co-operation documents signed between SA , Mozambique and Vietnam makes co-ordination and co-operation easier."

Yesterday was World Rhino Day. The Endangered Wildlife Trust said in a statement it would focus on debunking the myth that rhino horn contained curative properties, in an attempt to reduce demand .