SOUTH Africa has lost 588 rhinos to poaching in 2012 so far, the Department of Environmental Affairs said on Tuesday.

"The latest rhino poaching statistics indicate that 588 rhino have been lost to poaching since the beginning of this year, with the total number of arrests at 246," the department said in a statement.

The country has lost 140 more rhino than the 448 poached in 2011, while 224 poachers were arrested last year and 165 the year before.

According to the latest figures, 39 rhinos have been killed since the middle of November.

The Kruger National Park has been the hardest hit, with 362 rhinos lost to poaching. The North West, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces collectively lost 186 rhinos.

Earlier this month, North West Premier Thandi Modise said the South African National Defence Force could be called in to help prevent poaching in the province after it emerged that eight rhinos were killed in North West in one weekend, seven on one farm.

Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa is still studying a report from rhino issue manager Mavuso Msimang on how South Africa can better protect its rhinos. She has delayed any possible representation to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) on South Africa trading in stockpiled rhino horn until 2016.

Cites meets next year, but the deadline for submissions to Cites expired before Mr Msimang’s report was finalised.

Ms Modise said there was a need to clamp down on illegally issued hunting permits, and communities in the proximity of game parks and farms had to be educated and be involved in nature conservation, tourism and anti-poaching strategies.

With Sue Blaine and Sapa