THE Department of Environmental Affairs on Wednesday welcomed R25m in funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an independent international financial organisation, aimed at helping South Africa fight rhino poaching through enhanced forensic technologies.

Experts worry that the rhino may become extinct due to poaching, which has escalated in SA since 2007, with a 34% increase between 2010 and last year alone. Poachers have killed 251 rhinos this year - the department releases rhino poaching statistics at intervals, with the latest figures being released a week ago.

The GEF funding comes as South African officials prepare to visit Hong Kong to take DNA samples of rhino horns confiscated by authorities last year and see whether they match horns on the rhino DNA database held by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria's Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, Department of Environmental Affairs spokesman Albi Modise said.

Matches might provide evidence that could be used in prosecutions, he said.

Last November Hong Kong customs officials seized 33 pieces of rhino horn (86,54kg) and 127 pieces of worked ivory (9,2kg) concealed in a container declared as scrap plastic, all transported by sea from Cape Town. This is the biggest consignment of illegally traded rhino horn originating from South Africa that has been seized outside the country.

Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has signed a memorandum of understanding that broadly covers "environmental co-operation" with China, but wants to add an addendum that specifically relates to rhino poaching. She is soon to sign a memorandum of understanding with Vietnam, and is in negotiations with Thailand about one.

Rhino horn is sought-after in the Far East, where some believe it to have medicinal properties.

Mr Modise said the department also wanted to sign a memorandum of understanding with the University of Pretoria to "facilitate collaborations to thwart the ongoing scourge of poaching, particularly of rhinoceros, in tandem with the norms and standards for the marking of rhinoceros horn and the hunting of white rhino for trophy purposes".

Two months ago Ms Molewa gazetted revised norms and standards in terms of which samples are to be taken for DNA analysis of live rhinos when they are translocated, and when trophies are investigated to determine hunt legality.

The Global Environment Facility unites 182 member governments - in partnership with international institutions, nongovernmental organisations and the private sector - to address global environmental issues. It provides grants to developing countries and countries with economies in transition for projects related to biodiversity, climate change, international waters, land degradation, the ozone layer and persistent organic pollutants.

"If the current trend in poaching of rhino continues the way it has, the worst-case scenario is that the rhino, this iconic species, will be driven to extinction in the wild," said John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).

Under the Cites treaty, rhino horn trade has been banned for the past 30 years, but there is debate in South Africa over whether trade might reduce the black market price of rhino horn - estimated at $60000 a kilogram - and so reduce poaching.

blaines@bdfm.co.za