THE Department of Environmental Affairs is hopeful that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) aimed at protecting South Africa’s rhinos from poaching will be signed with China and Vietnam later this year, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said on Monday at the Hunting Indaba at Sun City.

The World Wide Fund for Nature said Vietnam is the top destination for rhino horn. At least 455 rhinos have been lost to poaching in South Africa this year, seven more than last year’s total, according to department statistics.

Ms Molewa and her Vietnamese counterpart had been due to sign the much-anticipated MOU earlier this month, but her counterpart was not available at the time.

The MOU "has long been ready" in South Africa, Ms Molewa said on Monday, adding she hoped it would be signed on a working visit to China and Vietnam next month.

The minister told wildlife industry stakeholders that regulating the hunting industry had helped increase the population of white rhinos dramatically, due to the higher value placed on the animal and the incentives created through regulation.

The white rhino population has increased "over 10-fold" since regulated hunting began in the 1960s, she said.

However, Ms Molewa said the success of South Africa’s wildlife and hunting industry — a major contributor to the economy and job creation — was being undermined by criminals "who come to our shores and steal our heritage".

All stakeholders, including the government, had to work together "to fight this scourge", she said.

Stakeholders present at the indaba said regulated hunting was a driver of economic growth, tourism and jobs.

Wildlife Ranching South Africa president Dr Gert Dry said South Africa’s more than 10,000 wildlife ranches employed more than 100,000 people, and hunting alone contributed R6bn to the economy.

"Hunting and game trading are mission critical for sustainable use," he said.