Rhino Poachers in South Africa reached a milestone in 2013 when they killed more than 1,000 rhinos for their horns.
The harrowing benchmark is a new record for poaching in the African nation. It represents more than a 50 percent increase from the year before, Reuters reports.
Rhino hunting is driven by soaring demand in newly affluent Asian countries such as Vietnam and China, where the animal’s horns are prized as a key ingredient in traditional medicine.
Rhino horn has a street value of more than $65,000 a kg in Asia, conservation groups say, making it more valuable than platinum, gold or cocaine.
The data is sure to ring conservation alarm bells about a downward population spiral in a country that is home to almost all of Africa and the world’s rhinos, and it may bring renewed pressure on the government to do something to halt the slayings.
In 2013, 1,004 of the massive animals were illegally killed in South Africa, compared with 668 the previous year and 448 in 2011.
Most of the killings are taking place in South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park, which lost 606 rhinos last year and 425 in 2012.
The park service has been turning its rangers into soldiers, using drones to patrol airspace and sending out crack units by helicopter when suspected poachers are sighted.
The Kruger borders impoverished Mozambique, where most of the poachers are believed to be drawn from. Criminal syndicates promise cash to poor and unemployed rural villagers willing to take the risk of hunting down the animals.
“A total of 37 rhino have been poached since the start of 2014,” the department of environmental affairs said.
South Africa’s rhino population totals around 20,000.
Elsewhere in Africa, elephants are being poached at an alarming rate for their ivory, which is used for carvings and has been valued for millennia for its color and texture.
The surging demand for ivory also mostly comes from rapidly growing Asian economies.
South Africa is home to the majority of the world’s rhino population, so mass killings of this volume is a dire warning for conservationists, the outlet notes. The black rhino is considered “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), while the white rhino is classified as “near threatened.” Both subspecies live in South Africa.
The drastic rise in rhino deaths has been tied to skyrocketing demand in Asia for the creatures’ horns. Prized for its status as well as its alleged medicinal value, ground up rhino horn is sold as a cure for everything from cancer to diabetes at prices up to $100,000 per kilogram.
Vietnam has proved to have a particularly insatiable demand for the powder, which was reportedly linked to the recovery of a cancer-stricken official, Smithsonian magazine notes.
In an effort to stop poachers, South Africa has turned its park service rangers into soldiers and has even deployed members of the armed forces to the hard-hit rhino habitat of Kruger National Park, the Telegraph reports. Although more than 300 suspected poachers were arrested last year, the criminal operations use sophisticated tactics and resources to elude law enforcement.