Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

NEXT year could be critical for South Africa’s rhinos as the poaching rate could overtake their birth rate for the first time, World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA) rhino expert Jo Shaw said on Tuesday.

South Africa is home to more than 80% of the global rhino population, and scientists have warned that if poaching increases at the same rate as in recent years, the species will be extinct in the wild by mid-century. Between 2009 and 2011 the loss to poaching jumped from 122 to 448, more than a threefold increase.

The country looks set to lose close to 1,000 of the pachyderms to poachers this year, with the count to date standing at 946.

But Dr Shaw said 2014 could also be the year in which South Africa’s efforts to save the species win through, and poaching could be brought under control.

Up to 2007, roughly 15 rhinos had been killed by poachers each year, but from 2008 the rate has accelerated alarmingly. Rhino horn, prized in Southeast Asia and primarily in Vietnam as a "pick-me-up", cancer cure and even an aphrodisiac, now fetches about $60,000/kg in that market.

In 2013 alone, the number of rhino poached so far in South Africa is a 42% increase on the 668 recorded by the end of last year, and much higher than the 333 killed in 2010 and the 448 animals lost in 2011.

The Kruger National Park, with its long border with Mozambique, has always borne the brunt of this onslaught and this year has lost 543, but South African National Parks spokesman Rey Thlakuli said the parks authority has been "also cushioned by the fact the arrests have also been quite significant. In the Kruger National Park alone we have arrested 123 people."

So far this year, 106 rhino have been killed in Limpopo, 85 in Mpumalanga, 84 in KwaZulu-Natal and 82 in North West.

South Africa is to apply to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites) in 2016 to be allowed to trade legally in rhino horn. This controversial decision was taken by Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa after a year-long series of workshops held countrywide on how to curb poaching.

Ms Molewa has signed memoranda of understanding with various East Asian countries, including China, in a bid to better protect the animals from poachers and poaching syndicates.